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The Next Big Thing?

The Cavs are on the precipice of their first playoff appearance without LeBron in 24 years. How did Cleveland become the biggest surprise of the season? How did it make three center-sized players work in the modern NBA? The answer to all questions is Evan Mobley.

Carson McNamara

For all of the increasingly sophisticated ways that we can gauge a player’s defensive impact, sometimes the most telling measures are the most visceral. Like the fact that wherever Evan Mobley goes in coverage, some of the best basketball players in the world will just start barfing up shots that fly off the backboard or float hopelessly off-course.

Damian Lillard cleared the floor to go at Mobley, drove him inside, and threw the ball off the bottom of the backboard. Ja Morant got Mobley on a switch, hit him with the full stop-and-go shimmy routine, and settled for a hounded runner that barely clipped the front of the rim. Zach LaVine saw a lane to the hoop and took it right at the 20-year-old rookie, but his attempt at a double-clutch layup ended before it could really begin. Mobley, in midair, had ripped the ball from his hands.

This is not normal. Defense is the NBA’s great learning curve, but before Mobley could even fill out his frame or fully learn the scouting report, he was ruining the scoring attempts of every opponent he came across.

In a way, this was Cleveland’s plan from the start. Most rookies—even highly touted draft picks—are given room to find themselves in their first year in the league. Promise can be flighty, which is why coaches tend to structure their teams around more veteran players and allow their live-wire prospects to fill the space between. The Cavs, however, are built in a way where Mobley affords that freedom to veterans. He is 6 feet and 11 inches of bedrock.

“I think he’s rare,” says Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff. So rare, in fact, that the coach publicly predicted—just 60 games into Mobley’s NBA career—that the Cavs would one day hang the forward’s jersey in the rafters.

It’s hard to argue the point. The immediate returns from drafting Mobley include the franchise’s first winning season in decades without LeBron James and one of the biggest year-over-year defensive improvements in the league. A fledgling roster of developing players will have a chance on Tuesday to play its way into the postseason. “We wasn’t supposed to be here this year,” All-Star guard Darius Garland told reporters last week. “At all.”

The reason they are here, now, still well ahead of schedule, is because of Mobley. But the other reason they’re here, still fighting their way into the playoffs rather than already preparing for a first-round series, is because a run of injuries took the air out of one of the season’s best stories.

The Cavs have lost three rotation players (Collin Sexton, Ricky Rubio, and Dean Wade) to season-ending knee problems. They were hit harder by the omicron variant than any other NBA club. Jarrett Allen, Cleveland’s other All-Star, hasn’t played for more than a month and won’t be available for at least the first of the make-or-break play-in games. In all, the Cavs have suffered enough intermittent sprains and pains to disrupt any hope of season-long continuity. Cleveland made a big play at this year’s trade deadline by acquiring Caris LeVert to help generate offense. Yet in the two months since, LeVert has played alongside the tandem of Mobley and Allen in all of four games, which is to say he’s barely even acquainted with the team the Cavs are supposed to be.

“It’s been frustrating, obviously,” Bickerstaff says. “But the thing that picks me up every day and that keeps us going is how our guys continue to pull for one another, and how they continue to just give us what they’ve got.”

A similar, unrelenting enthusiasm has hummed through every twist in Cleveland’s season—even as the team limped to the finish in almost unrecognizable form. There’s a release in playing for something bigger than this particular moment. Something bigger than any playoff race. The shorthanded Cavs have lost eight of their past 11 games, and two losses in the play-in would end their season. Yet they move, even now, with the assurance of a team that knows what it has in Mobley and can see this season for what it is.

“We’re trying to build something special,” forward Lauri Markkanen says.

Welcome, then, to the ground floor.

Evan Mobley #4 and Jarrett Allen #31 of the Cleveland Cavaliers try to block Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls during the second quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on October 10, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The generation gap in the Cavaliers’ roster is on full display in the hours before opening tip at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. A reserved, first-year player like Mobley is strictly business when he takes the court for his warm-up; he makes a beeline to the block for a series of point-blank hook shots, works outward through an array of face-up moves and shooting scenarios with assistant coach Greg Buckner, and then trots off through the tunnel, as quietly as he came, to finish the rest of his pregame routine.

Veteran forward Kevin Love, by contrast, is the mayor of Cleveland. A home date against the Bulls means a warm reunion with former Cav Tristan Thompson, a fellow ring bearer from the 2016 title team. Later comes a long catchup with DeMar DeRozan, who cackles as he acts out the ruthless dunk LeBron smashed over Love a week earlier. Love, again, takes the slapstick charge.

Fourteen years in the league has given Love hundreds of teammates and relationships with so many more—the kind of network the youngest Cavs have only begun to build. Most of the team is just getting started. When fully healthy, the average age of Cleveland’s starting lineup is just 22 years old. That makes Allen, who turns 24 next week, a veteran by default.

“It’s almost like a trickle-down effect,” Allen says. “Kevin Love, he’s been in the league for 25 years now. And I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate my way. I’m trying to give Evan every little piece of advice that I can.”

Cleveland’s broader player development complex relies on that sort of collaboration. A team with so many recent draft picks on its roster—including top-five selections in each of the past three drafts—could easily pull in too many directions at once. Just imagine the unfettered, real-hooper chaos of a roster full of young players trying to show off their mid-post package. To make sure a full roster’s development fits together, the Cavs prioritize the ways individual players interact with one another on the floor.

“I think for a long time, we spent so much time just working on the individual—and we assumed that because that individual was getting better, that would impact winning,” Bickerstaff says. “Over the past few years, we’ve come to the realization that if you don’t teach people how to win, when winning comes into play, they don’t know what to do.”

The Cavs watch a lot of film as a team on a TV mounted to the wall of their practice court. With the swivel of a chair, they can seamlessly translate the concepts on-screen to the actual hardwood. Together, the Cavs make some of the most rote elements of training more dynamic. More reactive. Rather than let an assistant coach run Cedi Osman through his pregame shooting routine, Rajon Rondo—the oldest player on the roster at 36—weaves around ball boys to feed Osman with all kinds of passes. Much of the Cavaliers’ individual work at their facility has been replaced by exercises in groups of two or three, or working in a few more bodies to create a five-man shell. Full practices in the NBA are rare. But you don’t need a full practice to get a few bigs on the floor together to work through reads in tandem, to better understand what their rotations mean to each other.

“Because player development,” Bickerstaff says, “is about developing within your system.”

Every defensive system is predicated on failure. They’re built on the premise that you will get beat off the dribble, that you will get hung up on a screen. The team with the ball dictates the terms; the only way to survive is to learn to live with the breakdowns. When the Cavaliers introduced Mobley to local media last July, Bickerstaff shared that he would sometimes lie awake in bed, his mind racing at all the ways Mobley and Allen could be deployed together to solve problems. They were bound before they had played a single game as teammates.

An entire system—and Cleveland’s core defensive philosophy—was constructed around them. The Cavaliers’ defensive principles are fairly standard. The dimensions, however, are not. Allen is listed at 6-foot-10, though he’s joked that his Afro puts him closer to 7-foot-5. Mobley is 6-foot-11, though he has the balance and agility of a wing. “It’s a lot of length for the offense to deal with,” Mobley says, and even more when Cleveland starts Markkanen, 6-foot-11, on the wing.

“The basis of our defense was built around those three guys, and how they worked relative to one another,” Bickerstaff says. “Jarrett at the 5-spot was the guy who typically would go track the ball. And then Evan’s responsibility was to protect Jarrett, and then Lauri’s responsibility was to protect Evan.”

Opponents who managed to slip through Mobley’s grasp on the perimeter have still had to contend with Allen waiting in the paint, eager to crush their shot. Yet when teams ran higher and more inventive pick-and-rolls to draw Allen outside, they were met by the rim-protecting prodigy pulling in behind him. Those built-in fail-safes have allowed the Cavs—in spite of all their injuries—to hold opponents to the worst shooting at the rim of any team in the league. “Sometimes,” Bickerstaff says, “teams see ghosts.” Cleveland’s matchups with the defending champion Bucks were Bickerstaff’s defensive dream realized. How many teams could assign their stout, shot-blocking center to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo and still have the structure to meet him at the cup with another, even longer deterrent?

The Cavs can guard pick-and-rolls as conservatively or aggressively as they like, so long as that basic architecture remains intact. All of which is sound enough in theory, but feasible only because of Mobley’s intuitive feel for how and when to disrupt plays. Allen knows his job and does it well, but after arriving in Cleveland by trade last season, he was also the backbone of a defense that ranked as one of the worst in the NBA. The Cavs reworked their entire scheme around the idea that Mobley could be the bridge between two other bigs, and a wispy, one-and-done prospect became the crux of everything the organization hoped to accomplish.

Only a handful of players in modern NBA history have come into the league ready and able to shoulder so much defensive responsibility so quickly. Most of them were in Cleveland over All-Star Weekend in matching blazers, enshrined as some of the greatest to ever play the game. Bickerstaff was right; this is something rare. There is an uncanny quality to the way Mobley processes the activity around him—how reliably he puts himself in the right spot and how rarely he does anything to compromise his teammates. “He understands positioning,” Bickerstaff says. “He understands where he always needs to be relative to the ball. And he has the green light to go.” Despite starting most possessions away from the action and out on the perimeter, Mobley has rotated to contest a ridiculous number of shots this season—more than all but five players, according to NBA.com. Among his statistical peers—a mix of All-Defensive Team candidates and drop bigs who park themselves in front of the basket—Mobley somehow rates as one of the most foul-averse.

So little of what we know to be true about rookies seems to apply here, which is why the optimism around Mobley has shot to the moon. “I’d like to play the stock market on Evan,” Love says. “Put a ton of money into him.” It’s also why Bickerstaff’s mind never stopped racing. “What he’s done is he’s made us think outside the box because of his size and skill set,” he says of Mobley. “We put in what we call our ‘Superman’ zone defense—for him.” That zone is modeled after one the late Flip Saunders built around Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, with the position-breaking big man corralling all comers at the top of the floor. Sometimes, life imitates draft comps.

At every turn there’s a parallel to Garnett or Tim Duncan. But is Mobley a throwback? Or is he the future? It’s widely accepted at this point in the season that the Cavs prefer to play a jumbo lineup in a small-ball league. But that doesn’t make it any more explicable that the reason they can get away with assigning Markkanen, a career power forward, to guard some of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers is because of the cover he gets from a 20-year-old rookie.

The idea sprang from a logjam. Cleveland acquired Markkanen in a three-way sign-and-trade last August on the heels of a bleak season in which Love and fellow power forward Larry Nance Jr. were available for only 60 games combined. Depth was a priority. Yet when Love came into training camp in great form, Bickerstaff found himself with four quality bigs vying for minutes at the same positions. Then he remembered that Chicago, Markkanen’s previous team, had a similar problem after trading for Nikola Vucevic last season, and found room for the Finnish stretch 4 as a part-time 3. So he rolled the tape.

“There were clips on there where it really stood out that he could keep guys in front of him and that he would compete on the defensive end of the floor,” Bickerstaff says. So Cleveland tried it. There are certain quicker, one-on-one scorers who are off-limits for Markkanen. Yet the Cavs typically assign him to whichever opponent is going to be in the center of the frame, initiating offense and attacking off screens. “They’ve been throwing me at everybody,” Markkanen says. Luka Doncic. Chris Paul. Donovan Mitchell. Paul George. DeMar DeRozan. If there’s an All-Star perimeter player out there, Markkanen has probably taken a crack at slowing them down.

“Going into it, our thought is—when we’re whole—because of our 3, 4, and 5’s ability to switch, you can put him on people that are involved in a lot of pick-and-roll or a lot of the actions,” Bickerstaff says. And against all odds (and maybe against the natural order of basketball), it works; even after taking on water during the past few months, Cleveland finished the season just outside the top five in overall defense and was at its stingiest with all three of Markkanen, Mobley, and Allen on the floor together. The provisional small forward hounds the ball. The All-Star center guards the screener. And the rookie, on instinct, provides the safety net.

Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks the ball during the game against the Orlando Magic on March 28, 2022 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

On the shelf behind Bickerstaff’s desk sits a framed bit of coaching catnip: John Wooden’s PYRAMID OF SUCCESS, that beloved road map to the pinnacle of competitive achievement. There are 25 qualities outlined in Wooden’s visual guide, each built upon others. Industriousness. Reliability. Confidence. Poise. As Bickerstaff explains what makes Mobley such an exceptional prospect, he incidentally finds his way to pretty much every one of them. Some high-level players are cornerstones. Some can be the whole damn pyramid.

“He stays in the purest thought process of the game of basketball,” Bickerstaff says, “which at the end of the day is wins and losses.”

Teammates and coaches describe Mobley as a player who is constantly adapting his game to fit the moment. Every matchup demands something different. At this stage in his development, Mobley isn’t the kind of player who can be dialed up on command to dominate. His game just happens. If the ball moves, it will find him. When opponents drive the lane, he will appear. Everything he does is a natural outgrowth of the same basic formula: intelligence plus skill, multiplied by length, brought to the power of opportunity.

“He does everything for us.” Garland said after an overtime win last month in which Mobley notched 27 points and 11 rebounds. “Defensive-wise, offensive-wise. He’s a 7-foot unicorn.” And like most unicorns, he grew up as a perimeter player first, handling the ball and attacking from outside, until a growth spurt caught up to make him something mythical.

Every time the Cavs set a new baseline for what they expect of Mobley, he seems to blow past it. “If he continues to progress and stays healthy, I truly believe he has Hall-of-Fame talent,” Buckner says. “And he has a Hall-of-Fame brain. A basketball mind.” Even in their most straightforward workouts together, Buckner puts it to the test. Every spot of a shooting drill comes with a new sequence of moves. Between the legs, behind the back, stepback. Then: right foot jab, one dribble left, spin-back fadeaway. Then: Up, under, spin back, shot fake, left-handed hook. In every case, Mobley will listen to the instruction, visualize, and then execute.

“This is something different,” Buckner says. “Most rookies, you try to keep it real simple and basic with ’em. But with him, he’s just on another level.”

To fully unlock his game, Mobley will have to get stronger, and he’ll have to get louder. At the start of the season, Buckner says, Mobley would barely even laugh. His teammates have started—if only started—to coax the sparing rookie out of his shell here and there. “As a character, he’s a little bit more quiet,” Markkanen says. “But it doesn’t take away from how competitive he is.” That much is evident when he spikes an opponent’s shot into the fourth row. Cleveland’s coaches would simply ask that he turn up the volume a bit. Mobley’s internal dialogue is already ahead of the game; even without full familiarity with what every opponent runs and how their players like to operate, he naturally jumps actions and cuts off lanes. Yet if Mobley sees things other players don’t but never makes a sound to warn his teammates, will anyone else see it at all?

“Communication, we always say, puts you in the right spot,” Buckner explains. “If you’re telling people what you’re doing and what’s coming, you’re automatically in the right spot.” When in doubt, you speak it into existence.

There is a hotly contested race between Mobley and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes for Rookie of the Year, but Mobley, more quietly, has an outside chance to be the first rookie to make an All-Defensive Team since Duncan in 1998. So much of the modern game depends on whether the bigs on the floor can hang on a switch against a perimeter player. It’s a strategic pressure point that has marginalized veteran bigs in high-leverage games and made others essentially unplayable. Mobley makes it all look so incredibly easy.

“I think his IQ and his ability to learn on the fly and adjust on the fly is very high level,” Love says. The five-time All-Star has mentioned, almost in passing, that Mobley could someday compete for Defensive Player of the Year. Mobley receiving that honor seems like more of a matter of when, not if. And there’s little question about whether he could be the youngest Defensive Player of the Year.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Bickerstaff says. Dwight Howard is the youngest winner on record at 23 years old. (Kawhi Leonard and Alvin Robertson, who also won at 23, were nosed out by a matter of months.) That gives Mobley three more seasons to make his case.

“He’s got the intellect to do it, and then the God-given attributes of that length, that size, and the ability to move his feet,” Bickerstaff says. “So there’s no doubt in my mind that he has a chance to beat that.”

There is certainty in the way the Cavs talk about Mobley’s defense and possibility in the way they frame his offense. The truth is that no one really knows whether his game, down the line, will lend itself to a role as a go-to scorer. Maybe that’s where the Duncan comparisons end.

“I think it’s gonna be on us as coaches to give him more,” Bickerstaff says. “Now, he typically does what he does without a whole lot of plays being called for him. The next step is that the ball is in his hands more.”

This rookie season is the baseline: Mobley will always have a knack for seeking out pockets in the defense as a play evolves, turning momentary lapses into easy scores. Many in Cleveland are optimistic about the way he might eventually stretch the floor. He isn’t a range shooter yet, but he’s building—“being pushed,” as Love put it, “into expanding his game to have no limits.” In the meantime, Buckner has worked with Mobley on facing up, turning the rookie’s world around.

“He naturally goes to try to back guys down,” Buckner says. “In high school and college, you can get away with that. Here with these grown men who have kids his age, you may not be able to go to that.” The Cavs prefer to put Mobley in positions to take advantage of his skill—to leverage the differences between a singular talent and almost everyone he goes up against. There aren’t many bigs who can move like Mobley. The best way to help carry an offense is to face the basket and show it.

All of this fits into a larger composite: Mobley attacking from all over the floor, scoring 20-plus while helping possessions along. The hope is that he can grow to relieve some of the pressure on Garland, who might’ve been Cleveland’s most important player in this injury-plagued season. “To have a point guard like that who can score the ball and also dish out dimes, it makes the game super easy,” Mobley says. What the Cavs so painfully need, however, is someone who can make the game easier for Garland.

Sexton was supposed to give Cleveland some juice off the dribble until he went down for the season in November. Given his restricted free agency this summer, it’s unclear whether the team will even be able to bring him back on a new deal. Then Rubio helped Cleveland connect the dots for a while, until he suffered his own season-ending injury. The Cavs traded him to Indiana in a package for LeVert, a wheeler and dealer in the pick-and-roll who could work as an ostensible replacement. Frankly, it’s too soon to say; 19 games into his Cavs career, LeVert is still finding his spots and still searching out the creases in the offense.

Looking forward, Mobley is the natural pressure release. “I think if you get him the ball in the middle of the floor, it’s problems,” Bickerstaff says. When Garland has looked to Mobley as his way out of the trap, the Cavs have been thrilled with his work as a connector. His reads aren’t as instantaneous as what you’ll see from the game’s sharpest short rollers, but Mobley has an eye for more than the assist. “A lot of times,” Bickerstaff says, “he just makes the pass that forces the rotation that’s gonna create a shot for somebody else.” Maybe his game is better suited to share burdens—to help an offense find its way.

There always seems to be a rush to get a young big to the 5 as fast as possible, to surround them with shooters and let them roll into wide-open spaces. Yet part of the appeal of Mobley’s versatility is the way it can find flashes of modernity in more traditional arrangements. Opponents who have tried to guard Mobley with wings have been mashed into quick timeouts—not due to bogged-down post-ups, but in attacks from the perimeter when Mobley powered his way to the rim. Some of what’s most exciting about the way he sees the floor is how it leads Allen to layups and dunks after the two make eye contact above the heads of the entire defense.

The more nuance Mobley adds to his offensive game, the more viable Cleveland’s giant lineups become. Ever since Allen broke his finger, the Cavs have missed his dedicated rolls to the rim, his body-blow screens, and his 30-something minutes of clockwork defensive positioning. They also miss the commentary from the center of the defense, and after games, miss having another veteran with the standing to call out his teammates for getting fuzzy on the details. “My role,” Allen said earlier this season, “[is to] get everybody in the right place.” And because Allen spoke to those needs, Mobley’s role was often something different. The Cavaliers, after all, are a team that develops in context.

“It’s definitely not an easy learning curve,” Love says. “Take it from me.” During his own rookie season for the Timberwolves in 2009, Love had to replace left-block stalwart Al Jefferson at center when Jefferson tore his ACL in the middle of the season. The trouble, in both cases, wasn’t strictly that a rookie had to take on the physically demanding job of a very different and more experienced player. It’s that when both slid down a position, their teams became more ordinary. Ryan Gomes was no Kevin Love. Lauri Markkanen, for all he’s done to plug holes and fill needs for Cleveland this season, is no Evan Mobley.

Mobley can’t yet do everything Allen does. Maybe he never will. But what he can do is to take the underlying idea behind a team—behind its roster, behind its system—and make it concrete. He showed up at USC during a transitory, COVID-altered season and instantly turned a good Trojans defense into one of the best in the country. He came to a Cleveland team that couldn’t stay connected in coverage, found ways to tie them together, and grounded the entire franchise in a new reality.

This is how it starts. This is how it always starts. For all the philosophical differences in how NBA franchises are run, every great team begins in the same way: with the arrival of a player who can bear the weight of everything it hopes to be.

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