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Was the Cavs' playoff flop just a blip? That depends on Evan Mobley

Julian Catalfo / theScore

With the 2023-24 campaign approaching, we're diving deep into some of the players we're most interested to watch. Next up, a third-year big man with generational defensive tools looking to pull an ascendent team over the hump.

Previous entries: Austin Reaves; Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren; Jaden McDaniels; Jordan Poole and Chris Paul.

Evan Mobley arrived in the NBA as the most polished rookie defensive big man the league had seen in years, if not decades. His combination of length, agility, and floor-mapping intuition made him a schematic skeleton key who unlocked all kinds of new possibilities for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In Mobley's first season, the Cavs jumped from 25th to fifth in defensive rating and doubled their win total from 22 to 44. In his sophomore campaign, they finished first in defensive efficiency, won 51 games, produced the league's second-best net rating, and made the playoffs for the first time in the post-LeBron era. Mobley made the All-Defensive first team and finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He also refined his offensive skill set, scoring more frequently and more efficiently than he had as a rookie and upping his assist rate while cutting down on his turnovers. He just turned 22 years old.

And yet, as encouraging as the regular season was for Mobley and the Cavs, their giant belly flop in that breakthrough postseason appearance raised some troubling questions about their team construction and some of Mobley's limitations. It wasn't entirely surprising to see the cracks exposed in a roster built around two small guards (Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland) and two non-spacing bigs (Mobley and Jarrett Allen) with no two-way wings in between. Even so, it was jarring to see how swiftly and brutally their flaws were exposed in the playoffs, trounced in five games by a smart, rugged New York Knicks team.

There was plenty of blame to go around - no Cleveland regular had a good series - but it felt like a particularly rude awakening for Mobley. After he showed meaningful growth as a self-creator and connective playmaker over the regular season, the matchup against an extremely physical and well-prepared opponent revealed how stilted and mechanical his offensive game remained.

He lacked the off-the-bounce wiggle, back-to-the-basket balletics, or mid-range touch to generate quality shots for himself or his teammates in a grind-it-out, half-court battle. Mobley's true shooting plummeted from 59% to a ghastly 48%. He ultimately became a bystander in the offense, unable to take any pressure off Mitchell and Garland when the Knicks swarmed them.

Mobley is a solid passer for his size, but he's a below-average pick-and-roll finisher, and he suffered from poor short-roll decision-making all series; he threw wayward lobs, flung up awkward hooks and floaters when trying to finish over help, or record-scratched and let advantages disappear. He registered 13 used possessions as a roll man in the playoffs and produced a grand total of one point on those possessions, shooting 0-for-10 from the field with two turnovers and a drawn foul, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Mobley didn't fare much better on post-ups, scoring four points on nine possessions. The Cavs finished the series with a 101.9 offensive rating, several notches below the Hornets' league-worst regular-season mark of 108.4.

Some of those struggles had to do with Cleveland's lack of wing shooting and consequent inability to space the floor in its preferred two-big configurations. New York tagged aggressively from the corners, which meant someone was always firmly planted between Mobley and the basket when he rolled. Even when he made timely kickouts to open shooters, the Cavs rarely had anything to show for it because those passes usually went to non-shooters like Isaac Okoro and Ricky Rubio.

However, Mobley's own shooting struggles were as big a problem. He shot just 36% on field goals outside the restricted area during the regular season, which fell to 19% in the Knicks series. That's not ideal for a big man who spends the bulk of his minutes playing next to a traditional, non-shooting center.

The front office made a point of addressing the wing shooting problem this offseason, signing stretch forward Georges Niang and executing a sign-and-trade for movement sharpshooter Max Strus. Neither quite fills the need for two-way balance on the wing, though Strus is passable in most matchups, and Niang can survive against opposing bench groups.

Strus will presumably replace Okoro in the starting lineup, which should make Mobley's life easier on offense. He'll not only have better spacing to work with as he looks to refine his post and face-up chops, but he'll also have more and better opportunities to work as a DHO hub. That lineup change will also make Mobley's life more difficult on defense. He and Allen already had their hands full at that end covering for Garland and Mitchell (who worked their tails off last season but are capped by their physical limitations) at the point of attack. Swapping out Okoro will remove another layer of insulation.

Crucially, in prioritizing shooting over defense when upgrading the wing, Cleveland is placing its trust in Mobley's ability to defend the big playmaking wings of the world. If the Cavs played the Heat tomorrow, for example, he'd likely start the game as the primary on Jimmy Butler. He gamely handled those types of assignments in select spots during his first two seasons, but he looks primed to face a heightened level of exposure on that front this year. It'll be fascinating to see how he handles it.

Another thing that became evident in the playoffs is that Mobley needs to get stronger. He'll have to find the sweet spot between bulking up and retaining his outlier nimbleness and agility, but the Cavs can't afford a repeat of last season's first-round defeat. While their stout defense mostly held up, they got manhandled on the glass. Despite Cleveland starting two 7-footers, the Knicks rebounded an astonishing 39.4% of their own misses and grabbed 54.9% of all available boards.

As coach J.B. Bickerstaff explained after a series in which Mobley and Allen got routinely rag-dolled by Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle: "There's a new level of physicality in the playoffs … There are regular-season games that the finesse can help you and get you through it. These games, you have to be built to win in the trenches."

Bickerstaff could've had any number of his players in mind when he made that comment. But looking at the team's roster construction, it's clear that upping the team's physicality quotient will primarily fall on the frontcourt.

Of course, that's not all on Mobley. Allen arguably had an even worse series, and he deserves to wear more blame for the team's rebounding woes as the nominal center. But Mobley should start by making sure he isn't getting physically overwhelmed at the four if he ever wants to grow into the type of player who can anchor a frontcourt on his own - which may ultimately be the way to optimize him offensively.

One way or another, the path Mobley charts from here will have major implications, not just for Cleveland but for the entire Eastern Conference.

The Bucks, while still formidable, are getting old and creaky. The Celtics are in a state of stylistic and spiritual flux, trading away their emotional leader/best passer/most versatile defender in exchange for a talented but oft-injured big man. The eternally frustrating 76ers are again in a holding pattern of their own making. The Heat may still have devil magic on their side, but they no longer have Strus or Gabe Vincent (two key contributors to last year's Finals run). Miami also doesn't have Dame Lillard yet. The Knicks, as currently constructed, still have significant flaws despite their recent evisceration of the Cavs.

In other words, there's an opening for Cleveland to emerge as the East's new team to beat as early as this season. With the Cavs' young core of Mobley, Garland (23), Allen (25), and Mitchell (26), they ought to have as much upward mobility as any team in the conference. And given their specific areas of need, it feels like Mobley's growth - more than anyone else's - will dictate how high they climb.

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