I'd like to workshop a take: The Cleveland Cavaliers are the NBA's preeminent "but" team.
Think about your ideal makeup of a contender. You want a team that can dominate — or wall off — the paint. Preferably both. You want a stingy defense, period. You want scheme-breaking shot creators — guys who can attack a drop, pass against more aggressive coverage, and boogie against defenders 1-on-1 when the situation calls for it. You want proper spacing around those guys to make their jobs easier.
The Cavs check a lot of those boxes.
There's a reason they've been near or at the top of the league in net rating all year long. Per Cleaning The Glass, they're one-tenth of a point behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the best defense in the NBA, headlined by their menacing frontcourt. In fact, the Cavs are one of four teams — joining the Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — that rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating.
Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland certainly pass the bust-your-defense smell test. Mitchell will, at worst, make the All-NBA Second Team; Garland doesn't have the same momentum, but he's played at an All-NBA level.
There are enough questions, enough "buts" (grow up), to generate some unease:
- How versatile is this defense — especially with only one of the twin towers on the floor?
- They're skilled enough to beat most coverages, but, do we trust their process late in games?
- Are there enough spacers to accentuate the skills of Mitchell and Garland?
Smack dab in the middle of these questions, figuratively and literally, is second-year forward Evan Mobley. Mobley doubles as a budding young star and, arguably, Cleveland's biggest X-factor this postseason.
After narrowly missing out on Rookie of the Year last season, Mobley showcased growth along the margins. His screening got better; he shaved tenths of a second off of his post-catch moves, unlocking more shot opportunities, short-roll playmaking windows and more half-court continuity as a handoff hub. While still wiry, Mobley's added strength helped foster growth as a rebounder.
In 2023, Mobley has exploded.
Over his past 41 games, he's averaging 17.9 points while converting roughly 60% of his twos, grabbing 9.2 rebounds, dishing out 3.0 assists (1.8 turnovers), swatting 1.8 shots and snagging nearly a steal (0.8) per game.
The scoring has popped in a real way. After having 12 games of 20 or more points last season, he's up to 20 this year. He's racked up 13 since the turn of the calendar, including big performances against the Milwaukee Bucks (38 and 9) and Denver Nuggets (31 and 9).
What Mobley can do as a lob threat or cleanup man on the offensive glass is well-documented. But the self-creation flashes? We're moving away from "flashes" and into this-is-what-he-does territory.
We're seeing a little more oomph before some of these shots. Subtle bows and shoulder nudges into the chest of defenders create *just* enough space for him to get off clean looks.
Beyond that, it's hard not to marvel at Mobley's patience when operating below the free-throw line. He doesn't mind pump faking once, twice, sometimes three times to get a defender off-balance. It's been fun watching Mobley almost realize in real-time, "Hey, teams really can't do anything with me inside of 10 feet, huh," as he flips in a mix of jump hooks, push shots and turnaround jumpers.
While Mobley has been assisted on more of his shots overall, he's showcased growth when creating on his own. He's converted 48.4% on self-created shots — which PBP Stats defines as "shots on which the player held the ball for two or more seconds before the shot" — inside of 10 feet this season, a slight bump from last year's number (47.7%).
Mobley's trending in the right way, but, naturally, he isn't there yet. He's well-below league average (53.1% FG) on those self-created looks inside of 10 feet. Though he's looked more comfortable on the block, the efficiency hasn't followed.
The Cavs are generating 0.85 points per possession (PPP) when Mobley shoots out of a post-up, ranking last among 26 players with at least 75 reps. And that efficiency actually drops when he's been defended by a smaller player (0.76 PPP).
I wouldn't be concerned long-term; the film is littered with some uncharacteristic misses up close, and he's been much better in 2023 (0.94 PPP) than the 2022 portion of the season (0.59 PPP). Smaller players being able to get under him and bother his better-but-still-loose handle — while also reading where bigger help is coming from — is something worth keeping an eye on.
The jumper remains a work in progress, though it's important that the shot is less of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency thing and more of something he's comfortable taking. It's helped him become more fluid in short-roll situations, and there's a head-shaking effect on nights where he has the three-ball going on top of his interior exploits.
Mobley has gotten better defensively as well. He's already much better than any player his age has any business being in drop coverage. His timing feels preternatural when contesting shots — inside the arc or outside of it. I don't think enough is being made of the fact that Mobley leads the NBA in three-pointers contested, ranks in the top 10 in blocks per game (1.5) and still fouls fewer than three times per contest.
And of course, his unique blend of length and mobility makes him quite the space defender. Only Nic Claxton has defended more isolations than Mobley, and Evan's efficiency-allowed number (0.895 PPP when a player shoots against Mobley) isn't far off Claxton's (0.852 PPP) or Bam Adebayo's (0.856 PPP). It's Year 2 and he's firmly in elite company.
The quieter portion of Mobley's growth has been his work as a rebounder. His overall rebound rate has improved by nearly two percentage points from last season (13.5% to 15.4%). His defensive rebound rate has jumped nearly three percentage points (19.8% to 22.7%). He snagged 1.8 contested defensive boards per game last season; that's up to 2.4 this year, a mark just outside the top 10 this year.
This growth has allowed him to anchor more minutes at the 5 this year. The Mobley on/Allen off minutes were essentially neutral (-0.2 NET, per Cleaning The Glass) last season; the Cavs are flat-out winning those minutes (plus-4.4 NET) this year behind a stingy defense (110.9 DTRG, would rank No. 1 in the league).
I don't think Mobley was quite ready to anchor solo minutes last year; he looks firmly prepared to do so now. The bigger question may be if the Cavs are equipped for him to do so.
They've trended smaller as of late, finding more minutes for their stable of wings at the 4 alongside Mobley. I'd worry about what happens when opponents are intentional about engaging him.
Engaging him directly, or pulling him away from the action by spacing him, puts strain on the weaker defenders around him. More worrisome, it exposes the Cavs on the glass behind him. Even when he's down there, there's only so much Mobley can do by himself. He's improved, but he isn't quite Moses Malone.
Look no further than the four-game stretch in mid-March while Allen was out, where Cleveland logged a 70.3 defensive rebound rate (20th during that stretch), grabbing only 45.7% of available rebounds (28th).
It's fair to argue it won't always be that stark, and it's worth noting the Cavs did go 3-1 in those games. On the flip side, the three wins came against Charlotte (twice) and Washington, while the loss came against Philadelphia — a team they could see in the Eastern Conference Finals if they make it that far.
More pressing: In Round 1, they're slated to face the New York Knicks, who rank third in offensive rebound rate (31.6) and second-chance points (16.1). The Cavs are 1-3 in the season series with a rebound rate of 45.7% in those games. There's context to be added, but still enough to be concerned about.
The good news, and something worth reminding folks of, is that it's okay for them not to have all the answers now. This is a young group with easy-to-see growth pathways for at least three-fourths of the team's core.
Mobley in particular is looking scarier by the week. If nothing else, this postseason should give us a clearer picture of where he is, where he's going and what the Cavs have to provide to facilitate that path.