Lauri Markkanen entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Wednesday paused one of the NBA’s most interesting early season experiments: The Cavaliers’ serious commitment to starting three big men up front. (It did not, however, put a stop to Cleveland’s surprisingly solid start; the Cavs beat the Trail Blazers, 107-104, to improve to 5-4.)
Cavs GM Koby Altman arched plenty of eyebrows back in August when—fresh off of signing starting center Jarrett Allen for $100 million and using the third pick in the 2021 NBA draft on USC big man Evan Mobley—he added Markkanen in a three-team deal. You could see the argument for bringing in a stretch 4 to add long-distance punch off the bench to a team that ranked 28th in the NBA in 3-point attempts, 29th in 3-point makes, and dead last in 3-point percentage last season. But with a new four-year, $67.5 million contract in tow, the 7-footer from Finland wasn’t going to come off the bench; he was going to start, alongside the 7-foot Mobley and the 6-foot-11 Allen, in the biggest frontcourt the NBA had seen in years.
Teams have tried supersized front lines before. According to research conducted by Zoe Surma of Basketball-Reference.com, prior to this season there had been 223 games in which a team started three players who stood 6-foot-11 or taller. The first came on February 1, 1985, when Jazz coach Frank Layden rolled with the 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton, 7-foot Rich Kelley, and 6-foot-11 Thurl Bailey in a win over the Mavericks. Eaton, who’d go on to win Defensive Player of the Year, registered his second 20-rebound, 10-block triple-double of the season.
Jumbo packages weren’t uncommon in the bruising, slower-paced NBA of the 1990s and early 2000s. But several of the game’s prevailing trends—the explosion of 3-point attempts, the rise of positionless basketball, the outsize importance of perimeter playmaking and pick-and-roll defense—have led to downsizing over the years. That, in turn, has meant significantly fewer mammoth front lines. According to Surma, before the Cavs’ move toward tall-ball, the most recent instance of an NBA team starting three players 6-foot-11 or bigger was on January 13, 2015, when the Spurs started Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Austin Daye against the Wizards. (That wasn’t some grand plan hatched by Gregg Popovich, though; Daye only got the nod because Kawhi Leonard was out with a bruised right hand.) Before that, you have to go back to December 3, 2010, when the Kings trotted out a front line of Samuel Dalembert, Jason Thompson, and Donté Greene against the back-to-back defending champion Lakers … and promptly got smoked by 33 points.
It’s easy to understand why teams don’t build giganto-ball lineups anymore. The evolution of the game has made big-wing playmakers—and the defenders who can slow them—the most valuable players in the league. All else being equal, you’d rather flank your standard 7-foot rim protector with a couple of 6-foot-8 dudes who can shoot 3s, run pick-and-roll, and switch screens than partners who provide more size but less skill.
For the Cavs, though, all else wasn’t equal. A slew of win-now trades during the second LeBron James era left Cleveland’s roster nearly devoid of young talent when James absconded for L.A. Spending three straight lottery picks on guards—Collin Sexton in 2018, Darius Garland in 2019, and Isaac Okoro (who played a lot of 3 as a rookie, but is undersized for the job at 6-foot-5) in 2020—gave Cleveland crowds in the backcourt and frontcourt, with only the underwhelming Cedi Osman and the oft-injured Dylan Windler between them.
Rather than hew to positional orthodoxy just for the sake of it, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff decided to take a shot at supporting his defensive-liability backcourt—the Cavs had been utterly flammable when Sexton and Garland were both on the court—with three huge dudes. He stayed the course even with Markkanen unavailable on Wednesday, moving 6-foot-9 power forward Dean Wade into the starting lineup against the Blazers. (Evidently eager to remind Bickerstaff that he does have two actual wings on the roster, Osman and Windler combined for 25 points with seven made 3s against Portland; more of that might make the coach consider a reversion to normcore lineup-building.)
The Allen-Mobley-Markkanen trio has averaged about 17 minutes a night, and Cleveland has been outscored by nine points in 138 total minutes with the three bigs on the court, which isn’t great. Frankly, “not great” was the default assumption for an alignment that would require Markkanen, never a defensive ace in Chicago, to slide down to the 3. The 24-year-old has spent more than half of his floor time guarding small forwards this season, according to the BBall Index’s lineup data—by far a career high—and has taken the primary assignment against dangerous offensive threats like LeBron, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, and Michael Porter Jr. No matter how much ground Allen and Mobley could cover in support, that seemed like a recipe for disaster.
And yet, the early results have been better than anyone would’ve expected: Cleveland has allowed just 99.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Allen, Mobley, and Markkanen sharing the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a defensive rating on par with the NBA’s stingiest units through the season’s first couple of weeks.
With Sexton and Garland up top, and Markkanen facing a foot-speed deficit against most small forwards, Cleveland still struggles to stall ball handlers and keep offenses from getting into the paint. Opponents are taking nearly 39 percent of their shots at the rim against these lineups, which would be the second-highest rate in the league for the season. But that’s where the benefits of playing three skyscrapers come in: Even if you get into the paint, there’s almost always going to be someone massive between you and the rim. Cleveland’s opponents are shooting just 55 percent at the basket against Allen-Mobley-Markkanen lineups—a league-best-caliber mark.
The three bigs have needed little time to develop chemistry in covering for one another. They quickly converge on the lane and get a hand up on damn near everything. They’re combining to contest more than 35 shots per game, with Mobley second in the league in attempts defended:
Allen and Mobley have the look of a dominant interior defensive duo. The vet’s holding opponents to a microscopic 41.1 percent shooting on attempts at the basket, tops among 68 players who have defended at least 25 up-close shots this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data; the rookie’s at 56.9 percent, good for 22nd.
Both have shown the quickness and fluidity to hold up on cross-matches, too, whether picking up Markkanen’s assignments when he’s beat or stepping out to corral quicker guards. Mobley, in particular, has looked special in space, harassing rising star Trae Young into 0-for-5 shooting when they were matched up and snuffing out a late-game drive by Damian Lillard to help Cleveland hold on against Portland:
Lillard wants Evan Mobley on the switch for a huge possession in the 4th and... it doesn't go well— Draft Dummies (@DraftDummies) November 4, 2021
Mobley is as good as it gets in space pic.twitter.com/E5iycihTHD
“On the defensive end, we can guard three through five,” Allen recently told reporters. “We can switch; that’s been kind of our thing, we’re switching on our different guys. So we just have a lot of versatility that can bring us far.”
That ability to hand off responsibilities and still keep at least one huge, long-armed deterrent stationed along the back line has helped Cleveland’s defense remain calm and steady; the Cavs are avoiding fouls and opponent free throw attempts at elite rates with their starting bigs on the floor. It sure seems to be flustering the opposition, too: The Cavs have forced turnovers on more than 20 percent of defensive possessions in Allen-Mobley-Markkanen minutes, and are generating more than 22 points per 48 minutes off those miscues, both of which would rank right up near the top of the league.
Not everything had gone according to Cleveland’s plan before Markkanen’s absence. Despite starting the league’s largest front line, the Cavs have been awful on the glass, corralling just 63 percent of opponents’ misses when Allen, Mobley, and Markkanen share the floor, a defensive rebounding rate that would be the league’s worst. And while the new-look starting group’s defense has looked ahead of schedule, its offense has been downright dismal, producing just 97.9 points-per-100—an anemic output trailed only by young tankers in Detroit and Oklahoma City.
Some of that owes to offense being down all across the league to start the new season. Some of it is par for the course when playing two big men who rarely venture out of the lane—nearly 94 percent of Allen’s shot attempts have come in the paint, and nearly 75 percent of Mobley’s have—which allows defenders to pack the paint to take away driving lanes. And some of it can be traced to specific struggles for Markkanen, both with getting his jumper online—a 36.6 percent career 3-point shooter entering this season is canning just 28 percent of his long balls—and in scoring when opponents guard him with smaller wings.
In theory, Markkanen drawing a defender like Desmond Bane, Devin Booker, or Bogdan Bogdanovic should be easy money—an opportunity to either play Pop-A-Shot over someone 6 inches shorter than him, or to back the defender down on the block for a high-percentage, point-blank look. Bully-ball’s never been Markkanen’s strong suit, though: He attempted just 39 shots out of the post total over the past two seasons, and has been an average-or-worse interior finisher since entering the league. If he’s not drilling 3s at a high clip, it can be tough for Cleveland to score enough for its pleasant surprise of a defense to hold up. (The guards finding their strokes would certainly help; Garland and Sexton combined for 40 points and seven triples in Wednesday’s win over Portland.)
Amid the early scuffling, though, you could see signs of Cleveland’s bigs figuring it out. There were turnovers and stalled-out possessions, yes, but also hints of a team learning how to take its raw ingredients—Mobley’s versatility and fantastic passing vision, the defensive attention Allen commands when he dives hard to the rim after setting a screen, Markkanen’s shooting stroke and scoring touch off the dribble—and turn them into something tasty. Watching the Cavs has been unlike anything else in the league right now: 7-footers taking dribble handoffs from other 7-footers and alternating handling and screening duties in the pick-and-roll; high-low actions and tic-tac-toe touch passes, all smart cuts and nifty finishes.
It hasn’t always panned out, but when it has, it’s been refreshing, cool, different. And to the extent that it’s worked, it’s been because an out-of-position 4/5 is a better option at the 3 than any of Cleveland’s other ones. While the three-big look has been outscored by nine points in 138 minutes, the Allen-Mobley pairing without Markkanen—with Osman or Okoro in his place, or with Ricky Rubio joining Sexton and Garland in a three-guard lineup—has now been outscored by 17 points in 45 minutes.
“The biggest shoutout has to go to Lauri Markkanen,” Bickerstaff recently told reporters. “To me, he’s the reason why it works—his willingness to do that, and again, sacrifice some comfort. He’s the reason why we’ve been able to get away with it so far.”
As long as Markkanen is sidelined, they won’t be able to get away with it anymore. If Bickerstaff can build on the Portland win and find other answers—running more offense through Allen (48 points on 28 shots in his past two games), Wade stepping in to stabilize the rotation, continued better play from Osman and Windler—then a more conventional-looking Cleveland could stay afloat. If he can’t, though, the Cavs could find themselves counting the minutes until Markkanen can return—and the NBA’s biggest experiment can get back underway.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Zoe Surma’s name.