In March 2022, Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen broke a finger on his right hand. It changed the Cavs’ season. When Allen broke his finger, Evan Mobley was a rookie star. He was not ready to prevent this change.
On March 6 of last year, in a game against the Toronto Raptors, Allen suffered a fracture (as well as a quad) that caused him to miss Cleveland’s final 18 regular season games. He then missed a play-in game against the Nets, but played against the Hawks in what turned out to be the team’s final game of the 2021-22 season.
Before the injury, the Cavs were sixth in the East, three games ahead of the seventh-seeded Raptors and out of the play-in tournament. They had reached third a month before that as well. By the end of the regular season, Cleveland finished eighth, two games behind sixth-place Chicago.
Before Allen’s injury, the Cavs had the numbers of a legitimate playoff team. They were fourth in defensive rating and ninth in net rating. When Allen left, the defense fell to 18th and the team’s net rating to 20th.
The Cavs went 8-11 in that stretch. They missed out on the playoff spot they looked set to get – a playoff spot that would have been their first without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season. That was largely due to Allen — their All-Star defensive lineman — missing time.
Now, in March 2023, Allen is dating again — though probably not for that long. This time, it’s a bruised eye he suffered Friday in a loss to the Heat. It is unclear when he will return, but for the team, there is no structural damage to his eye. This seems to indicate that Allen will not miss the entire final stretch of the season like he did last year.
The 2022-23 Cavs, however, are different. They can win games and do more than hang around for dear life if Allen misses time. It’s not optimal — Cleveland is even better with Allen healthy than not, and it’s not a debate — but they can more than survive. The biggest reason this is the case is the hiring of Evan Mobley.
When Allen was out last March, Mobley wasn’t ready for what was thrown at him. (He also missed some time with an injury of his own.) He didn’t sink completely, but he didn’t swim well in the deep water at center either. As a rookie, Mobley wasn’t much of a deterrent – he could block shots, but he often benefited from Allen’s presence allowing him to step back and block a shot off help. Considering he was a 20-year-old rookie with a slight frame, it makes sense that he wasn’t ready to absorb the weight of playing five-point minutes full-time.
The series data reflects this. Last season, lineups with Mobley under center, per Cleaning The Glass, were +3.6 per 100 possessions with a slightly below average defensive rating. With Mobley at power forward and Allen on defense, the Cavs outscored teams by 3.2 points per 100 possessions but held teams to 105.5 points per 100 possessions.
In short: When Mobley was the only center on the floor as a rookie, the offense worked, but the defense didn’t perform at the Cavs’ overall level. When Allen and Mobley were on the floor together, the defense was elite.
The 2022-23 season was a different story. With Mobley under center, the Cavs are outscoring teams by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with a defensive rating of 106.6 per 100 possessions. (The offense is also good, with 116.4 out of 100). By comparison, Mobley and Allen’s lineups are +6.8 per 100 possessions and lose about five more points per 100 possessions. (The offense, however, is a bit better with both on the floor.) By comparison, Allen-only lineups are +8.5 per 100 possessions this season versus +4.4 per 100 last year.
There are some other factors in these series besides the Allen/Mobley dynamic. (See: Mitchell, Donovan raise the floor for the whole team.) But Mobley coming into year two a bit bigger matters — he’d better hold up now when defending the rim by himself because he can better absorb straight-line moves in his chest. His block rate is down a bit this year, but it doesn’t look like it’s based on film.
The Cavs have leaned into it, too. Mobley in the center lineups usually has Darius Garland at point guard and otherwise Donovan Mitchell at shooting guard with two wings or Garland plus three wings. The idea is simple: plenty of space around Mobley so he can get into the paint on offense and cover everyone on the other end. The bet absolutely worked.
A small note: The Cavs played Kevin Love sparingly with Mobley, there is no noise in numbers that are affected one way or the other by lineups that include Love. That means something now that the Cavs are in their post-Love era.
Again: There’s no indication that Allen will miss as much time as he did last year. Cleveland will still need him, especially in games where he deals with bigger centers that Mobley hasn’t added enough brains to defend the NBA’s goliaths full-time. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid comes to mind as the Cavs host the 76ers on Wednesday. Giannis Antetokounmpo comes close if Cleveland plays Milwaukee in the playoffs.
But it’s important to note that Cleveland isn’t as dependent on Allen as it was a year ago. There may also be times where the Cavs should lean toward Mobley at the five. Consider recent Celtics games, for example. Against Allen, Boston often put two defenders between Allen and the ball to prevent him from making easy cuts into the paint where he could catch lobs or grab the offensive glass. Jaylen Brown also spent time defending Allen.
By doing so, Cleveland running a pick-and-roll with Allen makes less sense, especially late in the game. Often, the goal of Mitchell or Garland running a pick-and-roll is to force a switch to a big one. If Brown (or any other strong defensive wing) is there, there’s no point in trading.
Mobley at the five is the opposite, particularly the version of Mobley who does everything on defense and transforms into an aggressive, willing scorer on offense. He is ready.