The Cleveland Cavaliers have shed the early-season surprise label. They’re legit. At 20-13 through 33 games, they’ve established themselves as one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
However, nobody say it coming in the offseason. Critics weren’t just skeptical, they were outright dismissive as evidenced by the Vegas odds for them to make the postseason. DraftKings sportsbook had them at 20-1 odds to make the playoffs before the season started, third highest in the NBA ahead of just the Orlando magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The biggest reasons behind their success is that they’re… well, big. That’s not exactly the direction the NBA has been trending towards over the past few years. Teams seemed to only be allowed to have one true big man – and even he must be able to space the floor as much as possible.
That’s why according to a report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, even Cavs’ prized draft pick Evan Mobley was left questioning where the team was going with their decision to extend center Jarrett Allen just days after selecting Mobley with the third overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Cavs weren’t just going against the grain; they were committing to a path that would be difficult, if not impossible, to untangle.
Four days after drafting Mobley, the team signed Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract. Some draft experts and scouts projected Mobley could develop into a franchise center in the current taste of the NBA. In truth, Mobley and his camp thought this was possible too, so when Allen got paid there was some chin rubbing.
Not only did the Cavs make a long-term commitment to two franchise centers – they doubled down on their big man binge, initiating a trade for Lauri Markkanen to add to their stable of long-limbed lads that also included former All-Star Kevin Love.
“People were looking at us sideways,” said Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff says. “It’s one thing to be big but we felt Jarrett and Evan were big and active. It was building around that.”
Cleveland decided not to let the NBA’s small-ball movement at large influence what they were trying to do. Instead, they looked at the teams that won it all for guidance – namely, the last two teams to win a championship in the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Says Cavs Koby Altman: “We watched a lot of film and we looked at the last few champions. They were great defensive teams. The Bucks had Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and [Brook] Lopez. The Lakers had LeBron, [Anthony] Davis and [Dwight] Howard. They played big and they won.
“We didn’t see Evan as a player exactly like Jarrett and thought they could play together.”
In truth, their hypothesis proved correct. The Mobley-Allen 2-man lineup has played more than 500 minutes together so far. The Cavs have looked lethal defensively in those minutes, with a defensive rating of 95.9 and a positive net rating of +8.3. Their success together has thrusted Cleveland to the second best defensive rating in the entire NBA, sandwiched between league stalwarts in the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns. How’s that for some elite company?
“We’ve got a good thing going and I’m having a lot of fun,” Love said after he scored 22 points in a blowout win over the Toronto Raptors Sunday night. “It’s going to be great watching this young team develop.”
All told, the Cleveland Cavaliers still have a long way to go. Fellow upstart teams such as the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets have now fizzled out of late even as the Cavs keep chugging along with impressive wins.
Cleveland stands is clumped together with the Eastern elite, just 3.5 games separating them from the first-seed Brooklyn Nets. The gap between them and the 8th-seeded Wizards is the exact same.
But the fact that the East is so clumped together bodes well for controlling their own fate. As the teams beneath them continue to trade wins and losses against one another, the Cavs simply must maintain their current trajectory in order to secure a playoff spot for the first time since LeBron James moved to the West coast.
With every game that the Cavs win, that’s another bullet in the chamber for their argument that big is back in the NBA. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have been the mad scientist experiment gone right. All they have to do now is make sure they keep the magic alive.
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