Going Big: Cavaliers Rebuilding with Seven Footers
The Cavaliers have been one of the early-season surprises, but are they for real? Chad Smith takes a deeper look into the rebuild in Cleveland, and how they are going against the grain with their unique lineup.
The Cavaliers have given a new meaning to the term “the big three” in the NBA. Now ten games into the 2021-22 season, Cleveland maintains a winning record. In fact, the Cavs have won three consecutive games for the second time this year and have won six of their last eight. This is somewhat of a surprise to many around the league, considering Cleveland is still in the middle of a rebuild. They take their 6-4 record into Madison Square Garden tonight before hosting the next four games at home.
The victories this season are nothing to sneeze at, as they have defeated the Hawks, Nuggets, Clippers, Hornets, Trail Blazers, and Raptors. Four of those six have come on the road as well, which makes it even more impressive. The season is still young, but so too is this roster. Aside from the veterans like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, this is a group of young players that are still learning the nuances of the NBA game.
Over the past handful of years, the blueprint for rebuilding a team has been mostly the same. Many teams have built sustainable depth at each position, and incorporate a small-ball lineup that helps them in transition and spacing the floor in half-court sets. That might be the most common way to rebuild but someone forgot to tell Cleveland.
What the Cavs are doing actually began last season when they acquired Jarrett Allen from the Nets in January. It was a head-scratching move at the time since they already had Love, Andre Drummond, Larry Nance
Jr., and JaVale McGee on the roster. In the most unconventional method, they were loading up with big men and no one really understood why.
Koby Altman and J.B. Bickerstaff seemed to know the answer to that riddle. As they prepared for this season, the Cavs used the 3rd pick in the draft to select Evan Mobley. Despite having a plethora of bigs, the USC product was simply too good to pass on, as many believed he was the best player in this loaded draft class.
Evan Mobley through 🔟 games this season:
◻️ 138 PTS
◻️ 79 REB
◻️ 23 AST
◻️ 10 STL
◻️ 14 BLK
Only three other players in NBA history have recorded such minimums in their first 10 career games: Lamar Odom, Mychal Thompson, Bill Walton. pic.twitter.com/qWoOUU64Gx
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) November 6, 2021
The backcourt in Cleveland has been settled for a couple of years now, with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland holding down the guard spots. Rubio has been a solid addition, contributing in key areas while also helping mentor the two youngsters. The wing position seemed to belong to Isaac Okoro but he has been out of the lineup with a hamstring issue. Cedi Osman has been a decent filler there but the Cavs had something else in mind.
The Chicago Bulls were not able to come to terms with Lauri Markkanen on a new contract in the summer and he wanted a change of scenery. He only had to travel 350 miles to his new home in Cleveland. It was odd to see a team trade a player to a division rival but even more so considering the roster construction. How would Markkanen get enough minutes? How would he fit into the rotation? That is where things got really interesting.
Inserting Markkanen into the starting lineup was one thing, but putting him next to Mobley and Allen has unleashed something that most teams simply cannot match. With three seven-footers on the floor at the same time, the Cavs have a distinct advantage on both ends of the floor. While they all may be considered big men, they all have vastly different skillsets.
Allen is a defensive nightmare, especially inside where he protects the rim as well as anyone. He is also a force in the paint on offense, boasting one of the best field goal percentages (71.4 percent) in the league. He is one of the top rebounders in the league and possesses elite athleticism at his position. He has also demonstrated the ability to guard multiple positions on the floor.
Jarrett Allen with D on Dame to lock the W for Cleveland pic.twitter.com/vSg3gdjXUg
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) November 4, 2021
Mobley can be the same type of menace on defense, but also has the handle of a guard and can shoot from anywhere. The rookie has demonstrated flashes of his potential, which is almost limitless. Mobley (159) and Allen (118) lead the league in total contested shots as of Saturday, per NBA.com’s hustle data. Markkanen may not be the defensive force that the other two are, especially on the wing, but he can shoot the lights out and if someone drives by him on the perimeter, there are two more seven-footers waiting for him inside.
Love entered the league’s health and safety protocols on Monday and is expected to miss several games. Two days later, Markkanen found himself in the same situation. With Okoro out, the Cavs are getting very thin just two weeks into the season. It was an extremely small sample size with their three seven-footers playing together but one that is worth instituting once again when Markkanen returns.
The Cavs are a well-balanced team on offense, with eight players averaging double figures in scoring. Not surprisingly, they aren’t one of the top three-point shooting teams in the league but they are collecting fouls at a high rate and cashing in from the free-throw line, where they are shooting 77 percent as a team. The Cavs have had the fewest personal fouls per game so far this season at 15.5, which speaks to their discipline on the defensive end.
Cleveland is changing the game and doing it with size. Teams like the Hornets and Nets are going with smaller lineups but are not able to match up against this lineup when Cleveland utilizes it. Several other teams like the Celtics, Pacers, Hawks, and Lakers have gone with two big men on the floor together but not all of them have had success.
Right now Mobley is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, which is quite a statement considering the crop of talent that has been injected into the league. He has been incredibly consistent, scoring in double figures and rebounding very well. His tenacity on the defensive end is off the charts and his offensive game is already very good, and will only improve. As he continues to develop and get a feel for the game, he has a chance to be an All-Star in this league for a long time.
Like to see this from Evan Mobley. When we talk about spacing the floor a lot of people think shooting. Decision making is key. Mobley fakes the swing to get Bazemore out of the way and goes into a rhythm pullup rather than shooting the 3. pic.twitter.com/hAgDaxs2ZW
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 30, 2021
Cleveland’s offensive rating has improved from 28th last year to 18th this season. Their defensive rating has been an even greater improvement, going from 28th to 13th so far this season. They are moving the ball better and getting more transition opportunities, which has ultimately improved their points per game average, which ranked dead last a season ago.
The real advantage the Cavs have with these three is that they are all still very young. Markkanen is the oldest at 24, Allen is 23, and Mobley is just 20. Even Sexton, Garland, and Okoro are all still 22 or younger. There is a lot of room for growth with this team, and if they can improve each week, they have a chance to build something special.
The Cavaliers won a championship with a big three. Now they are hoping that their three bigs can carry them back into the playoffs.
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