The season is just around the corner. Over the next three weeks I’m going to take a look back at the biggest things we learned from the Cleveland Cavaliers surprising 2021-22 season and what it could mean for this upcoming one.
Playing multiple seven-footers worked
Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff didn’t shy anyway last season from zigging when everyone else is zagging. This was especially true when it comes to playing multiple big men together even if the fit isn’t conventional.
Bickerstaff first tried out a three big man lineup in 2020 after the team traded for Andre Drummond by running out lineups that featured Drummond, Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. multiple times before the season was called off. Unsurprisingly, that grouping didn’t work out.
The three seven footer lineups last season had slightly more success than the previous iteration. The Cavs won 22 of the 36 games the seven-foot trio of Lauri Markannen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen played together last season. They did this by outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions with an outstanding 102 defensive rating in the 621 minutes the trio shared the floor together.
Mobley and Allen rightfully get the lion’s share of the credit for the Cavs front court defense being as formidable as it was. That said, the value of having three seven footers who could step up and protect the rim at any given time can’t be understated. Markkanen wasn’t the best defender, but providing length in the passing lane and at the point of attack while being a good rebounder was valuable last season.
The three big lineups also allowed the team to get away with a 3-2 defense with Mobley at the top of the zone. Mobley’s speed and quickness allowed him to float at the top of the key while providing a straight line back to the basket if needed. An underrated part of this working was having both Allen and Markkanen on the backline protecting the rim and rebounding.
The Cavs should continue to have a good defense as long as Mobley and Allen are on the court and healthy. However, it is fair to wonder how differently things will be if you simply swap out Markkanen for a smaller guard in Donovan Mitchell.
Isaac Okoro’s offense is a work in progress.
The coaching staff and front office spent last off-season talking about Okoro developing his on ball scoring and playmaking. Unfortunately for the Cavs, those talks didn’t bear much fruit in the following season.
The Cavs offense desperately needed ball-handlers and outside shooting after Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio had season ending injuries. Okoro wasn’t able to provide much in either category. He finished the campaign averaging 8.8 points and 1.8 assists on .480/.350/.768 shooting splits while playing 29.6 minutes a night. The second-year swingman also registered a 12.1 usage rate which puts him in the 17th percentile for his position.
Okoro’s shot profile is quite good as he took 57.6% of his shots at the rim and 24.4% of his shots as corner threes which are the two most efficient places to score from on the floor. The only problem is he converted only 62.6% of his shots at the rim (46th percentile) and 35.8% from corner threes (32nd percentile). On top of that, only 22.2% of his makes were unassisted which shows he has trouble creating off-the-dribble. It is very tough to survive offensively as a wing who cannot create off-the-dribble and is not an above average outside shooter.
Okoro needs to be able to finish at the rim and hit corner threes with at least average efficiency to justify his place on the court let alone become an offensive contributor. There are certainly things that the coaching staff can do to get him more involved besides having him just stand stationary in the corner. At the same time, you can only do so much for a swingman with Okoro’s skillset if he’s playing alongside two traditional bigs clogging the lanes.
When the Cavs needed someone to shut down a scorching Trae Young with their season on the line, Bickerstaff didn’t have the confidence to play his best perimeter defender much over 20 minutes. We’ll see if Okoro can improve his offensive game enough to avoid a repeat situation of that this season.
Evan Mobley is only scratching the surface of his scoring capabilities.
Mobley’s already elite defense makes it easy to gloss over what he brings offensively. The same maturity and feel for the game that make him an elite defensive player also provide a baseline for his offensive game.
Mobley already does a lot of things well offensively. He finished his rookie season averaging 15 points on .508/.250/.663 shooting splits with 2.5 assists, 1.9 turnovers and 2.1 offensive rebounds per game.
Outside shooting was a problem area for Mobley all season, but it really became an issue after Ricky Rubio’s season ending injury. Mobley’s shot looked average to start the season as he shot 34.1% from deep on 1.7 attempts per game and 78.2% from the line through his first 26 games. His shooting numbers cratered after Rubio’s injury as he finished his last 43 games shooting just 16.7% from distance on 1.1 attempt per game and 60.9% from the line.
Despite the poor outside shooting, Mobley was still able to save his field goal percentage by finishing 72.5% of his shots at the rim which put him in the 71st percentile for bigs last season. More encouragingly, Mobley showed that he could create good offensive looks for himself as 33.2% of his makes were unassisted which puts him in the 76th percentile for bigs.
It’s easy to say Mobley needs to become a better shooter to become a great offensive player. While an outside shot would certainly be beneficial, I don’t believe it’s a necessity for him to become elite offensively. Mobley showed incredible touch around the rim and the ability to finish in traffic last season despite being in the 20th ranked offense that had poor spacing due to sharing the floor with two other seven-footers, plus a lack of outside shooting. Removing one of those seven footers and replacing him with one of the most dynamic on-ball scorers in the league will open up the floor for him considerably which should give him more room to operate.
The quickest path for Mobley to become an elite offensive player is to incrementally improve at what he has already shown he can do well. He has the skillset to be an elite offensive player. He just needs time to develop.