How Jarrett Allen and the Cleveland Cavaliers have learned to thrive together

Jarrett Allen (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jarrett Allen (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Since signing a five-year, $100 million extension, Jarrett Allen has been the engine powering the Cleveland Cavaliers back into the playoff picture. 

Jarrett Allen had grown used to the unorthodox lineup construction in Cleveland. Since joining the Cleveland Cavaliers in January of 2021 as part of the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, Allen had spent a majority of his time with the organization navigating rotations that routinely had him paired with another big man.

Despite acquiring him just before the midpoint of the season, the Cavs starting five defaulted to starting Larry Nance Jr. next to the 6-foot-10 center, coupling two interior anchors with no outside shot to speak of, in an era in which operating with no big men on the court was far more common than attempting to play with two.

That the Cavaliers were an abysmal -12.6 in such sets and ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in points per possession, according to the Cleaning the Glass, was hardly a surprise given the team’s inability to space the floor and create the driving lanes that their speedy wing players thrived off of.

And yet, buried under the countless possessions of sub-par basketball and even worse offense were hints that the Cleveland front office had indeed acquired a player whose unique defensive instincts were providing more value than the surface numbers indicated.

While the Cavaliers were a respectable, if unspectacular, 15th in points allowed during Allen’s time on the court, the former Texas Longhorn almost singlehandedly stopped the squad’s hemorrhaging in points at the rim. That they ranked in the 60th percentile in opponent shooting percentage in the restricted area, per CTG, seems a minor miracle when going back to watch, as teams beat Cleveland time and again at the point of attack; gaining the first step and head of steam downhill as they attacked the basket, requiring Allen to sprint in an emergency rotation from the weakside to contest shots above the cylinder.

Though the pedigree isn’t nearly the same, there’s something eerily reminiscent of Giannis Antetokounmpo watching Allen work.

“I’m a huge space guy,” Allen once said about his affinity for NASA and all things science-related. The same could also be true of his habit of covering vast swaths of the court to snuff out attacks at the basket.

After jettisoning both Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee to build around Allen, the Cavaliers entered the off-season focused not only on retaining Allen in restricted free agency but restructuring their roster to complement his prowess around the rim.

Ironically, they would do so by drafting by another defensive-oriented big man.

Jarrett Allen has improved so that Evan Mobley can thrive

Five days after the Cavaliers drafted Evan Mobley out of the University of Southern California, the organization agreed to terms with Allen’s camp on a five-year, $100 million extension that took the fifth-year pro out of restricted free agency.

While his $20-million-a-year price tag fell within the general range prognosticators believed he would earn, there was no shortage of second-guessing not only among analysts about the logic behind the deal–given the organization’s previous lack of success pairing Allen with another big–but also out of Mobley’s camp as well.

"“Some draft experts and scouts projected Mobley could develop into a franchise center in the current taste in the NBA,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported late last year. “In truth, Mobely and his camp though this was possible too, so when Allen got paid there was some chin rubbing.”"

Given that the third-overall pick was joining a team whose entire franchise success essentially began and ended with LeBron James, it wasn’t surprising that Mobley and his advisors would be suspicious of such an unorthodox approach to roster construction.

Yet, five months later, not only is Evan Mobley the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award, but the Cavs find themselves in a prime position to secure homecourt in the first round of the playoffs.

Two developments that have not only influenced the other but have been made possible, in part, thanks to the development of Allen.

While the headband-wearing center has put up career numbers across the board – averaging 16.9 points per game, along with 11 rebounds on a 70 percent true-shooting mark – it’s been the development of his secondary skills that has been most impressive.

Long a natural pick-and-roll partner as a rim running threat, Allen this year has displayed significant improvement as a passer, regularly catching the rock in rhythm on a half-roll before firing a pass towards the corner for a three or catching a backline cutter on their way to the rim.

While his expanded court vision has helped propel the Cavs towards shooting more corner 3’s – currently ranking 15th in the league in such shot attempts, easily their highest mark over the last four years – the potential threat of Allen’s playmaking ability has forced defenses to respond to his presence on the court in ways they never considered before.

Take Allen’s performance against the Houston Rockets last month as an example.

Following the Cavaliers winning the tip, Darius Garland began their opening set by bringing the ball towards the right baseline as Allen sprinted over to set a pick on DJ Augustin. While Garland utilized the screen to gain a half-step advantage over the defending guard, the Rockets quickly countered by looking to spring a trap on the prolific Cleveland scorer, with Daniel Theis not only switching onto him off the screen but Augustin fighting to recover off Allen’s hip-check to help Theis quarrel him near the logo.

Yet, instead of Garland holding onto the ball in an attempt to split the double-team, the second-year guard fired an easy pass back towards the unguarded Allen stationed near the elbow.

In past seasons, the center would have likely utilized the space in front of him following the pass to build a head of steam downhill towards the rim, hoping his 7-foot-6 wingspan was enough to earn a bucket or that the refs would bail him out from the contact and send him to the line.

Anticipating a similar course of action, Houston initiated a secondary rotation as the dropping Garrison Matthews rushed towards Allen to block his lane towards the basket, as Armoni Brooks hedged towards the paint to provide help, essentially abandoning Dean Wade above the arc.

However, rather than fighting his way through the path of most resistance, Allen stopped for a half-beat after receiving the ball to survey his options. Following a quick look towards the unguarded Wade behind the line, the center ultimately fired a picture-perfect lob pass towards the streaking Isaac Okoro, who took advantage of the bent defense with a baseline cut for a slam.

Two quarters later, Allen received the ball in almost the same scenario—unguarded near the elbow following a high-double team on Garland—yet this time recognized the adjustment by the Rockets to stymie the backdoor cut. Hesitating for only a moment, the big man progressed to his second option as well as an NFL quarterback by firing to Okoro, this time behind the arc in a similar position Wade was in, who then sliced his way around the defense for a layup.

For good measure, even when Houston did eventually make an adjustment to short circuit the playmaking ability Allen had displayed all game, eschewing the high-double team off the pick to cover Allen in the midrange, the center sped up the action by quickly firing a pass towards the corner to Lauri Markkanen for a trey.

"“He understands who he is playing with” JB Bickerstaff told the Akron Beacon Journal last year following the acquisition of Allen. “When you’re playing with these dynamic guards, a lot of times teams sell out to get the ball out of their hands. So now the ball’s going to be put in your hands early, so now you have to be the one that delivers the ball.“We get on the guards over and over again when they don’t throw the lob properly to Jarrett. Now the roles are going to be reversed. Now the ball’s in his hand and he’s making the kick out to the guard and there’s a spot where the guard wants the ball so he can be ready to shoot it.”"

Allen’s improved footwork has made his newfound passing ability even more deadly.

Rather than rely on his sheer athleticism to beat defenders to the rim, the 23-year-old reportedly worked all off-season to develop his off-the-dribble ability, which so far has earned him a place in the 94th percentile (!!) in all post-ups, according to tracking data from Synergy Sports.

Even when Allen isn’t passing the ball or attacking in the post, he still retains tremendous value as a screener, developing an almost psychic connection with Garland as the two move in perfect synchronicity with the big man anticipating the stop-and-go action of the high-flying guard on his dives towards the rim.

That the duo is a +8.5 when they share the court, and rank in the 89th percentile in the league in effective field-goal percentage, is as much a credit to the explosive playmaking ability of Garland as it is well-timed seals and screening ability of Allen.

It’s not that Allen has become Nikola Jokic offensively, but rather that he has developed wrinkles in his offensive repertoire to generate just enough space for the shooting-challenged Cavaliers to thrive when Allen is on the court, regardless of the lineup around him.

Considering how dominant Mobley and Allen have been on the defensive side of the ball, even average offense has been all that Cleveland has required to win the minutes their twin towers share the court.

Not only are the duo featured in three of the top 15 defensive lineups in the league by points allowed per 100 possessions, but they form the cornerstones of what is easily the most dominant five-person lineup in the NBA by defensive metrics. Accompanied by Garland, Okoro, and Wade, the Cavaliers have held opponents to an insane 84.2 points per 100 possessions, according to CTG, three points better than the second-ranked lineup.

The lynchpin of Cleveland’s success on defense has been their ability to stifle opponents at the rim, where the Cavs rank first in opponent shooting percentage.

Given Allen’s aforementioned success guarding opponents down-low, the squad’s lofty ranking against shots near the basket should hardly come as a surprise given the added presence of Mobley, who has compiled his own highlight reel of denials and blocks during his short stint in the league.

What has been a surprise is how Cleveland has earned that ranking.

Rather than featuring a conservative defense that drops and plays on a string to limit attempts in the restricted area, the Cavs allow their wings to play an aggressive style of defense that attempts to pressure offenses at all times and asks their players to fight over screens rather than opting for the easier drop-and-switch. While the constant ball pressure has generally succeeded in helping Cleveland limit the number of long-distance shots opponents can shoot against them, it has also allowed the speedier guards of the league to blow by the Cavaliers’ perimeter defenders with an unabated lane towards the rim.

The fact then that Cleveland can allow the fourth-most shots at the basket while holding opponents to the worst shooting percentage on those same looks is a testament not only to Allen and Mobley’s elite recovery abilities but is symbolic of the center’s influence on the team’s style of play as a whole.

By routinely rescuing the Cavs with his backline defense, he has allowed the coaching staff to mitigate their perimeter shortcomings with a hyperaggressive approach. By excelling as Garland’s pick-and-roll partner, he has helped create the type of go-to offensive weapon that every playoff contender requires late in games. And by serving as a release valve with his passing ability, he has created enough space for Mobley to shine even without an outside shot.

When analyzing players, we can often be pigeon-holed into just examining cause and effect; the idea that because Jarrett Allen has improved his passing skills and footwork, the biggest beneficiaries should be his assists and scoring numbers. While this can be true, Allen’s development has shown that the second and third-order effects often matter most because they allow organizations the room to reimagine what their roster can become.

Next. NBA Trade Rumors: 9 big names who should be traded and possible deals. dark

A year after being a footnote in one of the biggest trades in recent league history, Jarrett Allen is proving he can be the centerpiece of an NBA contender.