Round one of the NBA Playoffs did not go as planned for anyone on the Cleveland Cavaliers. While it was a struggle from the coaching staff to the last man in the rotation, arguably no one has received more heat than Jarrett Allen.
Allen was pummeled on the glass, beaten 36-13 in the rebounding department by Mitchell Robinson across the final three games of the series. The Cavaliers lost the battle of the boards in each of their losses to the Knicks.
To make it worse, Allen was a non-factor on the other end of the floor. He scored just 4 points on 2-6 shooting in Game 5, the final game of Cleveland’s season. Allen was hardly a threat to roll to the basket, allowing the Knicks to prioritize making life more difficult for the Cavaliers’ backcourt.
Consequently, Allen’s performance has been under a microscope. His effort, or lack thereof, has been called into question. He’s been dubbed “soft” and concerns about his long-term fit alongside the rest of the core are more present than ever.
Before I plant my flag in Allen’s defense, I want to reaffirm that his production in round one was pitiful. There is no question the 25-year-old appeared rattled at various points. As Allen stated himself, the lights were “brighter than expected.”
Jarrett Allen felt the pressure pic.twitter.com/oFLzy0P4j2— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 27, 2023
But I think there is a deeper explanation for Allen’s meltdown. A solution more tangible than simply “hitting the gym.” And while each member of the team should prioritize lifting weights this summer, the underlying reason for Cleveland’s collapse in the playoffs probably won’t be solved in the weight room.
We are going to look at what went wrong for the Cavs, how Allen can improve and why he should still belong in Cleveland’s long-term plans, for now.
Spread too thin on defense
The primary concern after Allen’s meltdown in the playoffs is his strength. Is Allen too weak to compete in the postseason? Or was Allen constantly fighting an uphill battle due to Cleveland’s defensive strategy?
Like a good goalie, Allen is at his best when he’s mounted in the paint ready to contest direct attacks on the goal. Allen held opponents nearly 9% below their average in the paint this season, placing him in the NBA’s top 10 (minimum 450 shots contested).
His size and athleticism make Allen one of the best defensive anchors in the league. But he was frequently tasked with leaving rim to contain drives before they happen, a strategy Cleveland practiced all season long.
This aggressive style of help defense is a core reason the Cavaliers boasted the league’s best defensive rating this season and allowed the sixth-fewest points in the paint per 100 possessions during the regular season. Allen was able to erase mistakes at the point of attack and safeguard lanes to the rim.
However, this urgency came with a few downsides. Throughout the regular season, Cleveland was burned behind the three-point line for their commitment to overhelping. Stretch bigs such as Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Julius Randle and Al Horford were able to spot up on the perimeter and punish Allen for prioritizing containment.
New York did not punish Allen behind the three-point line. Instead, a different vulnerability was exposed. Mitchell Robinson capitalized on an opportunity to flex his muscles as an elite offensive rebounder, sneaking behind Allen’s help defense to secure extra possessions.
Whenever Allen would step up to plug a drive, Robinson would slip behind him. The space Allen just covered to contest a shot? That belongs to Robinson now.
Allen might force a miss with his contest — but with the rest of the Cavaliers lacking the size to contain Robinson, extra possessions piled up for New York.
This is primarily where Robinson breaded his butter. Relentlessly pursuing the ball and punishing Allen for overhelping. It is true Robinson is bigger and stronger than Allen — but also had the advantage of being able to plant himself in the paint while Allen scrambled to defend other players.
It is no coincidence that New York’s offensive rebounding rate skyrocketed from 23% to 42% when Jalen Brunson was on the court. Brunson’s ability to collapse the Cavaliers’ defense and draw Allen outside of the paint was crucial to Robinson’s timely rebounding.
At some point in the series, J.B. Bickerstaff could have adjusted Cleveland’s approach and placed an emphasis on sticking to Robinson. This would have involved trusting Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro to defend in isolation against Brunson rather than banking on Allen to erase mistakes.
Instead, the Cavaliers remained committed to limiting Brunson at all costs. This allowed Robinson to run wild on the glass, sealing Cleveland’s fate with 18 rebounds in Game 5.
Running out of gas
There is no question that Allen’s effort was below what you’d expect from him in the playoffs. And while Cleveland’s gameplan arguably did not put him in the best position for success — a sense of urgency was visibly absent.
This is a problem only Allen himself can truly fix. Yet, an improved supporting cast and more importantly, a reliable backup big would go a long way toward rejuvenating Allen.
Allen played 38.1 minutes per game in round one, the second most of anyone in the series (behind Donovan Mitchell). He totaled 190 minutes, 50 minutes more than Robinson and nearly 100 more than New York’s backup center, Isaiah Hartenstein.
Carrying a heavy load was the case all season for Allen and Evan Mobley. The two ranked 11th and 4th respectively for total minutes played by any big man this year. The Cavaliers desperately attempted to stagger Mobley and Allen throughout the second half of the season with no viable backup big to replace them.
Neither Mobley nor Allen deserve a pass for their shotty effort in Cleveland’s most important games but it’s worth noting that a reliever on the bench could have added more gas to their tank.
Flawed roster construction
This roster is missing much more than just frontcourt depth. The Cavaliers' lack of a true floor spacer on the wing exacerbated everything else that was already going wrong for them in the playoffs.
The Cavs are not the only team to play two non-shooters together in the frontcourt. Golden State plays Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, Phoenix is starting Josh Okogie next to Deandre Ayton and the Los Angeles Lakers are finding success with Anthony Davis and Jared Vanderbilt sharing the floor.
However, of the abovementioned teams, the Cavaliers are the only squad playing with a non-shooter on the wing. The Warriors have Andrew Wiggins, in addition to the Splash Brothers. Phoenix has Kevin Durant and the Lakers have LeBron James — who is shooting just 23% in the postseason but... is still LeBron James.
For Cleveland, a carousel of Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Danny Green and Dean Wade appeared on the wing throughout the playoffs. Only LeVert shot above 35% from deep against New York. He also isn’t the kind of shooter that really makes defensives think.
So while it is easy to blame Allen for Cleveland’s lack of spacing it is important to remember that most teams don’t have a rim protector that can also space the floor. But they do have multiple wing players that can drill three-pointers, a luxury (necessity) the Cavaliers are missing.
As for Evan Mobley, the bar is low for him to match the three-point prowess of Davis and Green, both career 30% three-point shooters. Yet so far, Mobley has been well below this mark at just 23%. Until Mobley can establish himself as more of an offensive threat — or Cleveland is able to add a reliable wing — Allen’s fit will remain awkward.
Why Allen still belongs
Allen is a premiere defensive anchor and bolstered Cleveland into the 97th percentile for defensive rebounding when he was on the court during the regular season. This plummeted to the 60th percentile in the playoffs but I do not think one stretch of games should define Allen.
Allen has been integral to Cleveland’s rebuilding process. His size and athleticism have allowed the Cavaliers to build a league-best defense despite having two undersized guards in the starting lineup. His assault on the basket, while missing in the postseason, creates a release valve for Darius Garland to throw lobs to.
The four-man lineup of Allen, Garland, Mitchell and Mobley was +10.2 in their 1,729 possessions together in the regular season. They won 51 games and finished with the second-best Net Rating in the league. That is not a fluke.
Trading Allen this summer would be a knee-jerk reaction to a disappointing playoff run. While it would be negligent for Koby Altman not to monitor his options — it makes more sense for the Cavaliers to retain this core group and prioritize adding talent on the wing. Explore every avenue, from trading scrap parts to utilizing the MLE in the offseason.
Until we see this core at its theoretical best with a supporting cast that makes sense, Allen should remain in Cleveland.