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Not just an unsung hero: Jarrett Allen, an All-Star in his Cavs role

Not just an unsung hero: Jarrett Allen, an All-Star in his Cavs role

A reporter who typically despises hot takes actually has one begging to be written: Jarrett Allen is the straw that stirs the Cleveland Cavaliers' drink, and he is their most important player.

Somewhat buried beneath Tuesday's nationally-televised marquee showdown between Donovan Mitchell and a returning LeBron James was Allen’s comeback to the Cavs. He’d been missing for the last five games with a bothered back. In his first game since Nov. 25, the talented center made his first 10 shots, recording a 24-point, 11-rebound, 3-steal stat line in over 38 minutes of action.

Although Evan Mobley gets valuable reps as a ball-handling, jump-shooting, screen-slipping 5-man during his absences — and what a whale of a job he’s done showing off his toolkit — Allen has a certain presence about him that makes him just as important on the offensive end of the floor as the defensive end.

Prior to Cleveland’s road trip that started in Milwaukee, Basketball News asked Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff about Allen’s smarts and knowing opponents’ tendencies on both sides of the floor. Revisiting that concept before Jarrett’s eventual return to the court, Bickerstaff added to his previous response to illustrate what he does to open things up for his teammates.

“He plays with the vertical spacing that changes the game for everybody. Teams have to make decisions on who's going to stop him at the rim,” Bickerstaff said before the Cavs' 116-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “Typically the only guy who's out there that can do that is the big, so now, that clears a lane for your guards who are penetrating, who are attacking. And if you want to bring in a third guy and try to stop him early, that creates room for shooters on the perimeter. So teams have to make adjustments and they have to make decisions when Jarrett is on the floor, because that's going to create opportunities for the other guys that are around him.”

Vertical spacing. You don’t hear that term too often. So many people look for big men to spread the floor in the modern NBA, expanding their shooting range and forcing defenders to have to pay attention on the outside to free-up space to attack. That isn’t Allen’s version. His is quite the opposite, in fact, as he draws defenders in, leaving Cleveland’s perimeter players with good looks or blow-bys for better ones.

“It’s a thing just in terms in lobs if my man steps up, then he can throw the lob to me and finish it,” Allen said after the victory over L.A. “A lot of guys can jump in the league but being down there, ready for the lob, I don’t even know how to explain it honestly, I’m trying to make something up (laughs). Just a thing in the league with lobs and being able to be there whenever your man helps off you."

“Just try to find the open area," Allen followed up regarding his offensive approach. "D.G. (Darius Garland) has the amazing floater and Donovan has his pull-up game. My man is going to help and try to contest it. I’m just trying to get into the open window where they can find me and dish it to me at the last second.”

What Allen is known for is his screen-setting abilities, spearheading a pick-and-roll dynamite duo with both Mitchell and Garland. So when opposing teams send doubles at whichever ball-handler is operating the offense, it leaves just Allen and the basket. Again, an opportunity to cram it or spray it to the corners.

“I don’t really know where to start. I think the biggest thing is he can do it all,” Mitchell said after a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 23. “He can set hard screens. He can slip out of screens. You can hit him on a half-roll and a lob. You can pass to him and he’s able to make a post move and finish. There’s just so much to his game that adds onto mine… There’s so much we can do – him and I together.”

“I mean, he's huge. He's a big guy. I mean, when he makes contact, he's making real contact,” Garland stated at a preseason shootaround on Oct. 12. “So I have a lot of room coming downhill and can get to any of my spots. And then he's just right on the rim. A lot of bigs don’t want to have their man score, so a lot of bigs like going back to JA on the roll, so that leaves a lot of wide-open layups. When they do help, it leaves the easy lob, it’s two points for sure.”

Considering both of the Cavs guards are in the NBA’s top-15 in getting doubled, it’s always helpful to have that kind of option in the middle of the floor to make something happen. And sometimes, you’ll see Allen and Mobley execute a high-low to bend the floor.

“It goes both ways. Sometimes he's passing it to me, and sometimes I'm passing it to him. We just look out for each other,” Mobley said after the Portland win. “I feel like we're building that chemistry as well and getting better at it in on a game-to-game basis.”

“It’s super cool to see, been saying it for years now,” Garland said following a Nov. 18 victory against the Charlotte Hornets. “It’s super cool that they have that connection on the floor. The lobs from the 5-man to the 4-man is kind of crazy and it’s super cool to see. A lot of teams don’t really do that. We feel comfortable when they have the ball in their hands. When our backcourt is getting trapped, we know we can hit them and they can make the right play.”

Mitchell has the “ultimate confidence” in those scenarios.

“Teams might resort to blitzing us in certain situations and when you have an outlet, not only just have the outlet, but be able to make plays for himself, for others in pass and certain things. It's kind of like pick your poison, you know?” Mitchell added recently. “You have us two, then you have those two on top of that who are able to get in there and make plays for everybody."

There just seems to be a more natural feel to Cleveland’s half-court offense when Allen is there — just going by the eye test. Referring to advanced stats, the Cavs’ effective field goal percentage and free-throw rate drops by 3.8% and 2.1% respectively. That ranks in the 89th and 69th percentiles among his peers, per Cleaning the Glass.

Lineup data via PBP Stats helps show his effect on those around him. In the 176 minutes that Garland, Mitchell and Mobley have shared without Allen on the floor, their Offensive Rating as a trio dips by nearly 6 points per 100 possessions. (Ironically, their Net Rating is better — Mobley is an incredibly versatile defender, and Lamar Stevens has done an admirable job as the team’s starting 3). 

According to NBA.com’s Optix figures, the Cavs are scoring a whopping 1.47 points per possession when Allen sets a screen for Mitchell (9.7 times per game) and 1.13 PPP when he does it for Garland (11.0). 

“I mean, it, by the numbers, is elite pairings. It's not just as easy as it may look. It's more scientific than we give it credit for,” Bickerstaff said Tuesday. “Understanding angles, understanding timing, understanding defenses and rotations — it's calculated. I think from both standpoints, Jarrett has the calculations down, the guards have the calculations down. It's just more so about them playing more together and the more they play together, the more lethal it's gonna be.”

“With Donovan, I like to flip the screens more,” Allen said a couple of weeks ago at a morning practice. “He likes getting downhill. I’m not going to give away all the secrets, but he likes getting downhill and going a certain way. So instead of setting it how I would for Darius, I might flip the screen for Donovan.”

Allen is cerebral, physical and, most impressively, a presence that elevates his Cavs teammates to the incredible performances we’ve seen on a nightly basis.

“I mean, he's in the right place the majority of the time. It's a simple concept, but he always goes where the defense isn’t,” Bickerstaff said after the Cavs' win over Portland. “And a lot of guys have a hard time figuring that out. But it's one of the things that he does, like for a big guy who's not a three-point threat, how do you create space for your teammates, in small spaces? And I think Jarrett does a great job of just finding those gaps and where to position himself where he creates enough space where big guys have to make tough decisions. Do you stop the ball, or do you give up a dunk? A lot of times you look out there and big guys are just in the way and it ruins the spacing for everybody else. But he does a great job of creating room for those guys to operate.”

At this point, we all know about his abilities as an anchor on defense, and his coach and teammates continue to demand recognition as a DPOY candidate. It's not just about the blocked and altered shots, but more significantly, the freedom it gives his teammates to put more pressure on the ball and roam around.

“When he's in there, he usually protects rim and I just help him. So I have a lot of more freelance ability to really move around and help where I see fit, and I feel like I play that role really well,” Mobley said last month after the Charlotte game.

Mitchell and Garland have highlighted this time and time again throughout the season.

“You know, when you've got guards who are dynamic like Trae [Young], Dejounte [Murray] getting downhill, all you've gotta do as a guard is kinda just stay in space and kinda funnel them down there to both Ev and JA. But you noticed it when JA was out, things weren't too great, and it's tough just to be down there when it's Ev and say, a Lamar. Lamar is not... we know we're not 7 feet,” Mitchell said on Nov. 21 after beating the Atlanta Hawks. “So being able to have two of those guys down there [is] the foundations of our defense. But definitely with JA back blocking shots, deterring shots and even forcing guys to travel because they don't wanna go up there for a shot — I think that's something that, you don't notice it on the stat sheet, but you see it when you're watching the game, and they bring it every night.”

“Everybody says that he's the Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber player and our team thinks the same of him. Just having like an agility 7-footer like that, it helps a lot,” Garland said after defeating the Blazers. “I mean, JA is super smart. He sees everything early, he just knows everything, like really early. So, he sees it and just reacts really quickly so it's good to see.”

Allen keeps defenders from getting second chances too, which is a part of defense that might not be appreciated as much. But the defensive metrics in general match what his teammates say about him.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Cleveland allows 7.8 points more per 100 possessions when he’s not on the floor. And when he is on the court, the Cavs’ Defensive Rating as a team is just 104.4. That puts him in the 98th percentile in the NBA, and it shows what leading by example truly means.

“That's what Jarrett does. We go through our expectations of guys, like, that's his way of leading is a willing to do all the things that most people aren't willing to do. And that forces everybody else around him to do the same,” Bickerstaff said following an Oct. 23 win over the Washington Wizards. “But it's, I mean, what he's capable of and the impact that he can have on that end of the floor, at that size, the versatility. I mean, like he's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate every single year. And I think it's time that we acknowledge that.”

Go back to last season when Allen broke his finger. Cleveland’s defense suffered, which made its offense suffer, which made the team suffer. The Cavs were 35-21 in the games that Allen played in. They went 7-11 after that point, and were 9-17 overall without Jarrett. Even in the previous season when he was traded from the Brooklyn Nets, this kind of impact was obvious to the naked eye.

With the roster turnover since then, it could be interpeted as foolish to compare that to the present day. Not in this writer’s eyes, as the Cavs are 2-4 in games without Allen this season, and the trend continues. (Mobley has gotten better and the team has started to learn how to operate on defense with Allen the middle, to be fair. However, it just doesn't seem the same.)

On a nightly basis, we’ve marveled over a number of sensational performances. With Mitchell, Garland and Mobley, you’re going to see that more often than not.

While that may be the case, Allen is the ingredient that blends the Cavs together and makes that group's individual talent thrive alongside one another in a team setting. He cannot be viewed as an unsung hero any longer.

Jarrett Allen is literally an All-Star in his role — one that appears to be the most crucial for Cleveland to succeed.

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