The Cleveland Cavaliers won three games this week including an impressive victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Their one loss was however disappointing as they blew a double-digit halftime lead to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here’s what we learned from this up-and-down week from the third-place Cavs.
Cedi Osman has been a positive contributor.
Osman has responded well to being benched in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 18. In the five games since, Osman is averaging 12.8 points with a 60.2 effective field goal percentage while adding 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 30.4 minutes of play. The Cavs have posted a 116.3 offensive rating and 96.1 defensive rating with Osman on the floor during that stretch.
Although Osman is far from a perfect player, his skillset lines up with exactly what the Cavs need. They need wings who can produce off-ball gravity, shoot and provide consistent effort on the defensive end. Osman has done those three things well this past week which has allowed the Cavs to play some of their best basketball with him on the floor.
Donovan Mitchell continues to be as good as advertised.
It was another strong week from Mitchell. His 29 points and nine assists against the Hawks helped the team put away Trae Young and company. He followed that up with a clinical 34 points on 11-18 shooting outing against the Portland Trail Blazers allowing the Cavs to coast to an easy victory. Mitchell had a tough second half against the Bucks but still finished with 29 points. The All-Star closed the week with a 14-point fourth-quarter performance to seal a victory against the Detroit Pistons.
Mitchell’s consistency has kept the offense afloat during lulls allowing them to remain a top-10 offense despite their recent injuries. He’s doing exactly what he was brought here to do. The Cavs aren’t close to being in third place in the East without him.
Jarrett Allen is the most valuable Cavalier.
It’s easy to lose Allen in the shuffle when you talk about why this team is off to a good start. Mitchell is having a season worthy of MVP buzz. Darius Garland has taken another step forward in his development. Evan Mobley continues to flash the high-level traits that make him a mismatch nightmare for opposing coaches.
Allen doesn’t have those flashy qualities that grab headlines. He doesn’t generate viral highlights that work their way through various social media platforms. But what he does bring is something that can’t be replicated.
Allen is the backbone of this team. His presence provides a competent floor that allows them to compete every night. The other three raise their ceiling. But victories are hard to come by without the foundation Allen provides.
This defense only makes sense with Allen. The Cavs’ defensive philosophy is to run teams off the three-point line and bait them into taking shots at the rim or midrange jumpers. As a result, opponents are shooting just 65% at the rim when he’s on the floor and 68.3% when he’s not there. Teams are also attempting only 33% of their shots at the rim when he’s on compared to the 36.1% they attempt when he’s off.
The All-Star big man is contesting the sixth most shots in the league per game with 8.5 twos contested and 2.8 threes contested. He is doing this while fouling on only 3% of defensive possessions which puts him in the 83rd percentile among bigs. This has resulted in 2.2 personal fouls committed per game.
Allen’s rebounding ability limits the opponent’s second-chance opportunities. Cleveland is grabbing 78.5% of the opponent’s misses when he’s on the floor which puts them in the 97th percentile. Lineups without are only picking up 70.8% of missed shots which is in the 22nd percentile.
One of the things that makes Allen unique among bigs is his ability to stay on the floor in virtually every matchup. His footspeed and quickness allow him to guard in space when necessary (the Cavs mostly drop their bigs in screens so this isn’t something he’s asked to do frequently). Teams haven’t yet been able to play him off the floor in ways other defensive team big men have been.
Allen is one of only a few bigs who provide all of the positives of a traditional, rim-running center with virtually none of the downsides you typically see from someone with his size and skillset. This allows him to be effective in nearly every matchup despite the fit with him and Mobley being unconventional offensively.
The center rotation is an issue.
Unsurprisingly, it’s tough to replace someone as unique as Allen. We saw this on full display against Milwaukee on Friday night.
The Cavs were able to jump out to a 14-point lead at the half thanks to 38 first-half points from Garland and Mitchell. Allen was shaken up in the first quarter after falling on his hip. He played the first few minutes of the third before throwing in the towel. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks feasted on Robin Lopez and the Cavs’ thin front court as they went from down 16 to up 22 in just a quarter and a half.
There were many things that went wrong in the second half in Milwaukee. The most glaring was the lack of rim protection without Allen. While Lopez is the Cavs’ fifth-best big on the team, he’s the only other center. The Cavs’ have a weird roster chock-full of guys whose best position is either shooting guard or power forward. The versatility allows them to play weird lineups that work when the key contributors are healthy, but it can fall apart when Allen is out.
Mobley is an outstanding defensive player for his age, but he isn’t capable of handling the center position for extended stretches at this stage of his career. He is still being pushed around on the block and isn’t the rebounder he needs to be to survive against high-quality centers. This is partly why the Cavs have struggled defensively this season when Mobley is on and Allen is off. Lineups featuring Mobley and not Allen are giving up 115.1 points per 100 possessions which puts them in the 28th percentile in the league.
Lopez was brought in to be the backup center for games the Cavs are without Allen. Unfortunately, his lack of quickness has allowed opponents to get whatever they want offensively as lineups with him have a 122.4 defensive rating which puts them in the 3rd percentile.
Mobley and Lopez have proven to not be capable defensive centers for extended stretches. Bickerstaff has also not shown a willingness to go small and play lineups without one of Mobley or Lopez when Allen is sidelined with the exception of Mamadi Diakite getting some spot minutes in the recent win in Detroit.
Few teams have good fifth bigs. But few teams rely on their center as much as the Cavs do. It’s difficult to get a quality backup center to come to Cleveland given the Cavs’ ideal rotation is to have Allen and Mobley soak up all the center minutes. When they aren’t able to do that, this becomes a very mediocre team that is forced to outscore opponents to win.
We saw this last season when Allen missed time at the end of the regular season. The Cavs were 9-17 without him and were better suited to handle his loss with the presence of Lauri Markkanen. This team is much better overall but isn’t as well positioned to play in his absence.
The Cavs won’t go far in the playoffs without Allen. But they have the potential to fall down the standings considerably in the regular season if he’s ever forced to miss extended stretches. Finding a more capable backup center should be the front office’s biggest priority prior to the trade deadline. Even a bigger concern than upgrading the wing.