Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and the Cavaliers are keen to reinvent the big man position

Evan Mobley crouches his lean frame in a defensive stance on the perimeter, a place few 7-footers have been as comfortable as the cornerstone of the 21-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers franchise.

It’s midway through the first quarter of the Cavs’ season-opener, and on this play, Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam steps Mobley as he drives into the middle of the lane.

But Mobley has a luxury few NBA teams have: help in the form of other Jarrett Allen, 7-foot All-Star center.

Allen slides in, leaving Toronto’s Scottie Barnes alone on the baseline and positioning himself to compete with Siakam in the restricted area. Siakam tosses Barnes under the basket for what would normally be an easy finish, but those buckets are few and far between when the 7-foot Cavaliers share the floor. Mobley helps his assistant, jumping to block Barnes’ layup.

“We have each other’s backs,” says Allen. “That’s the advantage of having two 7-footers. If you miss the first one, there’s a second one for you.”

It’s a moment that illustrates one of the main benefits of playing big, as long as the senior staff is also agile and instinctive, in a league that increasingly relies on the small ball, positionless lineups and outside shots.

“I know we’re all in love with the 3,” says Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff, “but to win in this league, you’ve got to win the paint, and that’s on both ends of the floor. If you’ve got big guys, you just It’s easier to do that.”

While the Cavaliers aren’t the only ones bucking the league-wide small-ball trend, the Minnesota Timberwolves have paired All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert this season with mixed results, and other teams have Given their own twists on double-big lineups: Cleveland might have set the standard.

“Size and skill,” says Bickerstaff, “will outpace little guys and skill every day.”

“POWER FORWARD” HAS becoming an obsolete term, as teams generally prioritize shooting, skill, and defensive versatility at that position over threats from past generations.

However, as Bickerstaff points out, past NBA Finals are proof that frontcourt size still matters in today’s NBA:

  • The Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 title in the bubble with Anthony Davis starting alongside Dwight Howard, though they switched to a smaller lineup with Davis at center for the final victory against the Miami Heat.

  • The Milwaukee Bucks played big during their 2021 championship run with Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a dominant defensive duo, but Antetokounmpo’s ability to create offensively shreds the prototypical power forward.

  • The Boston Celtics’ great tandem of Al Horford and Robert Williams III formed a strong defensive backbone during the Celtics’ march to the Finals last season, a partnership suspended this season while Williams recovers from offseason knee surgery. . While Williams fits into the category of “traditional modern greats” (that’s a term Allen came up with to describe centers like him whose primary offensive contributions are protection, finishing and rebounding), the capable passing Horford’s 3-point shooting complements stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

  • The Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as a Western Conference contender with Jaren Jackson Jr., an all-defensive shot blocker with offensive perimeter skills, starting alongside center Steven Adams, though Adams was benched in the first round. last season due to defensive problems. Towns.

  • The rebuilding Orlando Magic have created intrigue with their mammoth starting lineup that features Bol Bol, who packs shooting guard chops on a skinny 7-foot-2 frame, starting between two muscular 6-foot-10 teammates, the Rookie contender of the Year Paolo Banchero at center and forward Wendell Carter Jr.

The Cavaliers, for their part, didn’t necessarily focus their game plan on going big. But the pieces fell into place for a franchise that was in Year 3 of a rebuild after four straight trips to the Finals led by LeBron James.

When he was the team’s general manager, Cleveland’s president of basketball operations Koby Altman got into the multi-team deal that sent James Harden from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets at the 2021 trade deadline, parting ways with the Bucks’ 2022 first-round pick to acquire Allen from Brooklyn. The Cavaliers considered him a bargain for a young center they anticipated would anchor their starting five for the foreseeable future, so much so that they secured Allen on a five-year, $100 million deal that summer.

The Cavaliers had the No. 3 overall pick in the draft months later and considered Mobley the best player of the 2021 class. They didn’t hesitate when Mobley was still on the board.

“We thought Evan was a game changer for the franchise,” says Bickerstaff. “When you have an opportunity to get a cornerstone, you don’t pass it up because of what you think of the position.”

The Cavaliers’ front office and coaching staff believed that Mobley’s passing and ball-handling ability would be a match for Allen’s abilities. They were sure the duo would thrive defensively, due to their size and ability to defend multiple positions.

“When you start thinking about long-term success and you start thinking about the playoffs, how many times do you see the greats play off the court?” Bickerstaff says. “They can’t trade, they can’t guard pick-and-roll, so now they have to sit out and they can’t play.

“We were extremely lucky to see those two guys, and they have the ability to do that.”

“The game has changed. Everything a big man does has become something different. Teams are looking for a different type of big man who can protect from 1-5. Just like us.”

Cavs center Jarrett Allen

The Cavaliers jumped from 25th to fifth in defensive efficiency during Mobley’s rookie season, escaping a three-year stint near the bottom of the Eastern Conference to win 44 games and qualify for the play-in tournament. Cleveland, which dramatically upgraded its offense by trading All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell last summer, has the No. 4 defense and a 13-8 record heading into Wednesday’s game at 7 pm ET against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers.

“You’ve seen the evolution of the great man,” says Allen. “The game has changed. Everything a big man does has become something different. Teams are looking for a different type of big man who can protect from 1 to 5.”

“Like us.”

The presence of a pair of 7-footers capable of guarding the rim and comfortably switching to perimeter scoring threats provided a level of assurance that the Cavaliers would continue to excel defensively despite Mitchell joining his fellow All-Star. Darius Garland in the back area.

“You’re going to find Donovan no matter what if you can go find him, but having them there as a security blanket is obviously an advantage,” Bickerstaff says.

“Our two bigs are elite defensively. They’re not like your regular bigs. They’re elite bigs, so our mindset was no matter who you put in front of them, they’re going to be able to get the job done and protect whoever it is. be there.”

LAST MINUTE, THE CLEVELAND CEILING it could be determined by Mobley’s development as a scorer. He’s averaging 15.0 points this season, the same as his rookie season but with improved efficiency, and the Cavaliers believe Mobley will become a potent scorer.

“It’s crazy, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I don’t think he really understands how good he can be,” Mitchell, the 26-oldest statesman among Cleveland’s four pivotal players, says of the 21-year-old Mobley. “He can be really special, and he can take us to a whole other level. Personally, I think he can be one of the top five players in this league.”

Mobley’s hope is that he can become a more dynamic version of Horford and get opponents to respect him as a 3-point threat.

“We’re not asking you to have everything today,” says Mitchell. “We’re going to grow as a group over the years. To be honest, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface.”

Mobley has yet to show that the 3-point shot is part of his arsenal, creating spacing challenges for a team that boasts top-tier creators like Mitchell and Garland, 22. If Mobley becomes an average 3-point shooter, Particularly from the corner, Cleveland’s explosive guards would have a lot more room to operate on isolations and pick-and-rolls with the 24-year-old Allen, an elite threat who has a good touch around the basket. Defenders who feel the need to close hard against him could also unlock more of Mobley’s ability to make plays off the dribble.

“That’s where the league is going,” Mobley says. “I feel pretty good about it so far. I haven’t shot much this year, but I think it’s going to build from here and keep getting better.”

Mobley is shooting just 21.1% from 3-point range on less than one attempt per game, a reduction in volume from his rookie season. The work Mobley puts in at the Cavaliers’ practice facility, where he will often make 8-of-10 shots from seven different spots around the arc, has yet to translate into games.

“He still has a lot of room to grow, a lot more things he can expand on in his game,” Allen says. “He’s shown excellent glimpses of what he can do. Everybody dreams of a big stretch. With Evan, it would be a big stretch that he can be one of the best defensive players in the league.”

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