For the last four seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have slogged through 219 totally unmemorable games, only temporarily popping into the zeitgeist as some sort of oddity to gawk at. Food fights in the locker room! Temper tantrums on the court! Andre Drummond! Ever since Lebron James decided that it’d be cooler to live in Los Angeles than Cleveland, the Cavs have collected losses like baseball cards, existing in a weird half space, almost more part of NBA Twitter than the actual NBA.
But now, the Cavs are good—or at least good-adjacent. Although Vegas has pegged the Cavs as the underdog in every game they’ve played this season, the Cavs are 7-4 and have won their last four games, relying on a discombobulating weirdness to steal wins against putatively more talented opponents. Whereas most teams adhere to the Tao of the Big Wing, the Cavs have constructed a practically wing-less lineup, relying mainly on small guards (Darius Garland, Ricky Rubio, and the now-injured Colin Sexton) and seven-footers (Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen). By doing so, they’ve found themselves on basketball’s vanguard, brewing a plus-sized response to a small-ball world.
Every draft cycle, there’s a new round of tortured discourse about what it means to be a Modern Big Man; Evan Mobley is the answer—he’s the Modern Big Man. In just his rookie year, Mobley has already established himself as the Cavs’ most important player, alchemizing lineups and tactics with his all-purpose skillset. On offense, Mobley maintains equilibrium and offers relief when his ball-handlers overheat—he slides into open spaces on the short-roll and along the baseline; he facilitates offense from the elbows and ranks sixth in the NBA in points per elbow touch (.735) on the eighth most elbow touches (4.5 per game); he spaces the floor and attacks closeouts with startling coordination. Despite having a willowy frame that renders him largely ineffective as a screener, he’s developed chemistry with Darius Garland, a jittery, pull-up shooting point guard who’s a budding star in his own right; the two of them are the ninth-most prolific assist combo in the league.
Defensively, it’s hard to describe Mobley without seeming unmoored from reality. Don’t be ridiculous: he’s not the best defensive big man prospect since Anthony Davis—unless he maybe actually is. Mobley covers ground so quickly it seems like the court is rapidly contracting under his feet; he switches with a rare menace, relishing in the opportunity to embarrass guards by enveloping their drives. Beyond his remarkable nimbleness, he’s proven his rim-protector bona fides—his 1.3 blocks per game belie his true impact; within six feet of the rim, Mobley contests 8.5 shots per game and holds opponents nearly 10 percentage points below their normal finishing rate.
Paired with Jarrett Allen, Mobley allows the Cavs to stock the rest of their lineup with offense-first scoring types; since the Cavs are guaranteed to almost permanently have a fearsome rim protector securing the paint, they’re able to weather Sexland’s smallness and Markannen’s slowness. Accordingly, the Cavs have had an elite defense in the 235 minutes that Mobley and Allen have played together; when their center duo share the court, the Cavs hold opponents to a 103.4 offensive rating.
Even if the Cavs cool from their torrid-for-them start to the season (Colin Sexton’s absence is a real downer), Mobley provides the foundation for sustained success going forward. The future is now.