Although Cleveland’s season so far hasn’t lived up to expectations, the Cavaliers built a team around playing two bigs together while most other teams in the NBA have gone small to play with pace and space. They say it’s a copycat league, and most teams have copied the Warriors.
Cleveland’s commitment to size works, to the degree that it has, for two big reasons and a couple of smaller ones.
First, Evan Mobley can shoot from just outside the circle, which means he can finish facing the basket. His shooting percentage drops dramatically from anything nearing the elbow or beyond, but he has offensive ability beyond posting near the rim.
Second, Evan Mobley and Jarett Allen defend on a string. They cover space, not just their man, and rotate to help when a guard penetrates. They’re quick enough and long enough to rotate without allowing a back cut.
Why it won’t work for the Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons haven’t developed enough team cohesion for players to defend on a string. When they rotate, a cutting lane opens, and the defense stumbles.
Marvin Bagley III, however, has improved tremendously in this regard. His rotations have been timelier, and he’s often maintained an awareness of the weak side.
Examining MB3’s lineup combinations, it appears he plays best with Ausar Thompson, which shows the impact on the team of a strong wing defender. Thompson’s defense helps MB3 stay in position to protect the paint and secure rebounds.
As Detroit’s roster continues to develop, players like Bagley will be better able to do what they do best in a stable environment. As each player succeeds, the team will find greater success.
The smaller reasons for Cleveland’s moderate success with two bigs are named Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Garland has proven himself capable of playing with pace, and Mitchell works well off the high pick and roll. Cleveland’s bigs can run with their guards, trail effectively for drop passes or rebounds, and roll to the basket after picking up a smaller defender. They’re athletic and complement the team.
Cleveland, like Detroit, has struggled with injuries this season, and they’re working to implement a new starting small forward. They haven’t enjoyed the success they’d like, but they’ve got a mixture of speed, length, size, and intelligence. I expect them to be a team worth watching.
I know we’ve been saying it for years, but it looks as though Detroit needs more time to put all the pieces together and keep them healthy. When the Pistons get healthy, we’ll get a better look at how they use their size, something they have at almost every position.