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Making the case for Evan Mobley as Defensive Player of the Year

Evan Mobley is deserving of serious consideration.

Houston Rockets v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Evan Mobley might be in only his second NBA season. But the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rising star has been a force on the defensive end. So much so, Mobley should be in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Mobley has a case as the best all-around defender on the highest-rated defense in the NBA. He leads the NBA in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Real Plus/Minus and has been available to play in all but two games this season.

At 21 years of age, Mobley would be the youngest player in league history to win the award. But if Mobley’s age has not held him back from being a world-class defender — it should not hold him back from being a legit contender for DPOY.

His teammates certainly think Mobley belongs in the race. “Watch a basketball game,” was Darius Garland’s blunt response for why he believes Mobley deserves the award. Donovan Mitchell shared the same sentiment, telling ESPN Cleveland that “he should be the Defensive Player of the Year. I’ve played with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, so I know what it looks like and I’m seeing it with him, for sure.”

Momentum is building but will it be enough for Mobley to win the award in his sophomore season? Today, we build the case for Mobley’s campaign.

Swiss Army Knife Defender

The Cavaliers ask Mobley to cover an impossible amount of ground each night. And miraculously, he does it with ease.

Mobley leads the NBA in three-pointers contested and places sixth in two-pointers contested, making him the only player in the top 10 for both categories. He spends 21.7% of his time on the perimeter defending guards with only Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton checking guards at a higher rate (24.5%) while contesting more shots in the paint.

Jarrett Allen is seen as Cleveland’s defensive anchor but it’s no secret Cleveland’s defense is able to thrive because of Mobley’s ability to rotate and recover.

“His help-side defense, it’s not said enough how much that helps our … well, it really is our defense,” Jarrett Allen told The Ringer.

The Cavs rely on Mobley to be omnipresent. He roams the entire floor, springing into action wherever his talents are needed. It is because of Mobley’s swift rotations that Cleveland is able to get stops so effectively despite an undersized and relatively underwhelming defensive backcourt.

Mobley is never uncomfortable on defense. The seven-footer holds opponents to 0.77 points per possession in isolation (81st percentile) and allows just 0.81 points per possession when switching ball screens.

This versatility should stand for something. Leading DPOY candidate Brook Lopez is a fish out of water on the perimeter and primarily plays drop coverage out of necessity. Mobley, on the other hand, can play any coverage asked of him, with zero chance of being played off the floor by a faster, more perimeter-oriented team.

“He’s not just an elite one-on-one defender, he’s not just an elite pick and roll defender, he’s not just an elite rim protector, he has the versatility to guard positions one through five. And he’s been that on the team that’s been the number one defense for the majority of the year,” J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters.

Protecting the paint

Winning the Defensive Player of the Year award often comes down to protecting the interior. The Cavaliers allow the third-fewest paint points in the NBA and this can be almost entirely credited to Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. The two bigs play off each other to perfection, cleaning up mistakes from everyone on the roster.

In some ways, Mobley’s position next to Allen can cause his individual contributions to be overlooked. Mobley isn’t patrolling the paint as much as he would if he was Cleveland’s full-time rim protector. With another prolific shot blocker next to him, it is hard to find opportunities to fill the stat sheet.

His 1.5 blocks per game might seem underwhelming when compared to other DPOY candidates like Brook Lopez (2.5) or Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.1). Still, Mobley’s 8 blocks against Detroit are tied with Jackson for the second most in a game this season (Lopez recorded 9).

Notably, Mobley accomplished his feat without committing a single foul, one of just eight players to ever do so. “It wasn’t just eight blocks - it was eight blocks that retained possession and he did it without committing a foul, “ J.B. Bickerstaff told CBS Sports. “That’s old-school Bill Russell stuff we’re talking about.”

Blocking shots while maintaining possession has become a signature trait of Mobley’s. Getting the block is seemingly an afterthought to him, with the primary focus being how he can tap the ball to a teammate (or himself).

Even with fewer total blocks than his competition, Mobley’s long arms and impeccable timing make him one of the most effective rim protectors in the league. He holds defenders 5.3% below average within six feet of the rim, the eighth-best mark in the NBA (minimum 450 defended field goal attempts). Opponents shoot just 42.1% in the paint when Mobley is there to deter them.

It is also worth remembering Mobley’s responsibilities on the perimeter. His role is far different from Lopez and Jackson, who have the luxury of focusing their attention on the rim. Mobley is protecting the basket on the fly, covering more ground than his counterparts and still placing in the NBA’s upper echelon for paint coverage.

Mobley’s timing as a help defender is nearly perfect and he’s already one of the most intimidating shot blockers, frequently talking opponents out of attempting layups. This stuff does not show up in the stat sheet but it does show that blocking shots is not the only way to protect the basket.

Availability and reliability

Mobley has a clear case to be the most versatile defensive big and he’s not far behind the best interior defenders despite his broad responsibilities. But there is one more factor that should give Mobley a massive edge over his competition — availability.

He has played in all but two games this season, placing sixth in total minutes played. Mobley has been on the court fulfilling his duties far more than any other DPOY candidate, playing roughly 400 more minutes than Lopez and nearly 1,000 more than Jackson.

Mobley is not only durable enough to play more minutes but he is one of the best at avoiding foul trouble. He has only fouled out of two games and been in serious foul trouble six other times. Compare this to Jackson, who has been disqualified from four games and reached the brink of fouling out 13 times despite appearing in 17 fewer games than Mobley.

  • Evan Mobley - 2,628 minutes, 153 fouls
  • Brook Lopez - 2,274 minutes, 195 fouls
  • Jaren Jackson - 1,658 minutes, 211 fouls

Mobley’s presence has been key for Cleveland in games when Allen is sidelined. He’s averaging 10.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 13 games without his frontcourt sidekick, maintaining a 111.4 Defensive Rating for Cleveland — the fourth-best in the NBA.

This production is night and day compared to last season when Mobley was playing without Allen. The Cavaliers’ defensive rating plummeted to 112.6 (20th in NBA) with Mobley at center last year due to his frail frame and inexperience in the NBA. But his added muscle and feel for the game have allowed Mobley to rebound at a higher rate (+2.0) and anchor Cleveland’s defense in Allen’s absence.

Take Mobley’s otherworldly fourth-quarter performance against the Utah Jazz, where he single-handedly put a lid on the rim while Allen was on the bench due to an illness. Mobley recorded 4 blocks in the final quarter versus Utah, nearly spearheading a victory on the road.

The best ability is availability. When looking at the big picture, taking into account Mobley’s perimeter defense, rim protection and reliability to be on the floor at all times, his candidacy has to be taken seriously.