The Cleveland Cavaliers were the bottom-feeders of the Eastern Conference, posting 19-63, 19-46, and 22-50 records the past three seasons. Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Cavs over/under win total at 26.5 coming into the season. However, forty-five games into the season, the Cavs boasted 27 wins and the No. 6 seed in the East.
This resurgence has taken place parallel to former USC star Evan Mobley joining the squad for his first year — and that is not a coincidence.
By far the most impactful rookie in the NBA, Mobley’s towering presence combined with head coach JB Bickerstaff’s unorthodox tactics has the Cavaliers active defense putting up the third best defensive rating in the entire league.
Bickerstaff opts to start three seven-footers — Mobley, alongside Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markannen — in an NBA that continues to move towards a small-ball, pace and space type of play. It’s not so easy for opposing offenses when you drive by one seven-footer only to be met by two more behemoths at the rim.
The primary reason the Cavaliers have managed to start three giants and put wins on the board is because of their ability to switch positions one through five while maintaining a high-level point-of-attack defense. And this all starts with Evan Mobley.
He could be guarding Trae Young on the perimeter, or jostling with Karl-Anthony Towns down low, and there would be no signs of panic from the Cavaliers defense. Mobley can do everything a coach needs on the defensive end of the floor; his name will be in the mix for an All-NBA Defensive team, an honor that hasn’t been accomplished by a rookie since Tim Duncan in the 97-98 season.
The most aesthetically pleasing component of Mobley’s defense is his vertical contests. The former Trojans’ slender arms combined with his leaping ability gives opponents headaches when they finally make it through the ravenous Cavaliers defense. He’s third in the league in contested shots, yet the most jaw-dropping part is that Mobley averages just 2.1 fouls per game. He is altering shots with the poise of a veteran big man.
Mobley and the Cavs block a ton of shots and throw down a bunch of alley-oops. The Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse often feels like a party when a “Cav-alanche” blows the score wide open.
The biggest knock on Mobley’s offensive game was his physicality coming into the draft, yet he hasn’t shied away from contact. Often, Mobley puts his shoulder into opponents when he gets into the paint, actually searching out contact to power and finish through it.
His subpar upper body strength fails him at times, but it’s promising that the mentality to want that contact is there. It’ll be scary when the USC star grows into his body, his athletic ability meshing with his advanced IQ style of play to produce a unicorn.
The runaway Rookie of the Year, Mobley is averaging 15 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game, but a majority of his impact doesn’t show up on the box score. Often, players don’t put up flashy counting stats but pass the eye test, and Evan Mobley definitely passes the eye test.
Bickerstaff’s Cavs are a remarkable 23-9 when Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen see the floor. A dynasty is being built in Cleveland, and the former Trojan has his hands all over it.