Was it prophetic for the Cavaliers that the power in Toronto’s arena abruptly went out as soon as the team wrapped shootaroound? Shooting the lights out is colloquial by now, but the way the Cavs would go on that night to out-grit the Raptors, digging deep into the mentality behind the ethos coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his players continually referred to postgame as “winning the scrap,” felt fitting for a team that had earlier worked the lights out.
A big part of that work is shouldered by Cleveland’s behemoth front court, made up of rookie Evan Mobley, offseason Chicago transplant Lauri Markkanen, and the now-default veteran presence of the three, Jarrett Allen.
Allen, who was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, arrived in Cleveland last winter as part of the four-team trade that put James Harden in Brooklyn. It was abrupt, as most deals with a superstar tend to feel, but what was lost in the Nets’ big get was how bittersweet it was to give up Allen and Caris LeVert. Coached by Kenny Atkinson, Allen — who, drafted at 19, was the second-youngest Brooklyn player ever to make an NBA debut— and LeVert had turned the Nets into an energetic and resourceful team. The stakes were low and easily surpassed, making the franchise enough of a draw for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to turn a dingy Brooklyn dive bar into the NBA’s most polished nightclub of a team.
Initially, it looked like Allen was bound to have an Andre Drummond-sized impediment to playing time in Cleveland, but that changed when Drummond and the team decided it would be best for him to stay home before a buyout. The Cavs finished 22-50 last season, with a defensive rating of 25th and an offensive rating that had them third-to-last in the league. It was a bleak season for the NBA at large, so Cleveland coming out of it healthy and with some retooling to do seemed a net positive overall.
While most of the league looks to craft compact teams comprised of smaller stretch forwards and rangy wings, the Cavs upsized by drafting Mobley and nabbing Markkanen in a deal that was deemed head-scratching at best, or completely misguided at worst. But Cleveland GM Koby Altman had his sights set on something bigger — literally, the goal was to build an enormous basketball team.
But this notion of “scrap” that Bickerstaff and his players talk about is new, and it’s come from the trickier thing that’s not always assured in trades and acquisitions: chemistry.
It’s evident on the floor — whether through intuitive screens, incisive passing, or digging in defensively — that the Cavs move around as a cool-headed collective. When Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes battled with Allen for a ball and tossed him to the ground in Cleveland’s last game against Toronto, there was a palpable caught breath across the arena. The affair had been physical from the start, and the question of whether things would escalate loomed over Allen’s suddenly sprawled out on the floor frame. Instead, Mobley and Darius Garland quietly moved in to lift Allen to his feet while Ricky Rubio, first stopping under the net to collect the ball, walks over to close the Cavs’ protective circle and checks in with a few words. There’s no holding Allen back, no move to guide him away from the knot of Toronto players in the paint.
Instead, he calmly nods at whatever Rubio has said to him and positions himself for the resulting jump ball.
“For me, I always bring it back to my teammates. They kept me level-headed, they kept me cool,” Allen said after the game when asked by Dime how he toggles so easily between physicality and keeping a cool-head in the clutch. “And for the physicality, I’m always going to be physical down there, especially on the offensive board. If I can tap it out, if I can grab the ball and kick it out for a three, that’s what I’m going to do.”
And that’s what he did. Allen would go on to make the most of the game’s last two minutes, first delivering a sideways pass to Mobley in the corner then wedging himself between Toronto big Khem Birch and Fred VanVleet to get open beside the basket and bunny-hop a tidy dunk off of Mobley delivering the ball back to him; then pulling down a rebound with under a minute left and easily covering the floor to screen for Garland, cutting diagonal through the paint in a single, languid stride for a layup that brought the Cavs within one point in a game where they’d never led. They would go on to take down the Raptors, 102-101.
It was a masterclass in patience and communication, things rarely attributed to a team as young as Cleveland is now.
“We try and do everything that we can together,” Allen said when asked how he, Markkanen, and Mobley have been building chemistry together. “We have a bigs group chat, just so that we can stay connected. ‘Cause a lot of it is learning each other’s identity off the court.”
The on-court identity, while only two months old, has been just as accelerated. Allen noted the three are often put on the same team during practice to hasten familiarity between them. And it’s an entirely different atmosphere up there, where the three of them take in the game from, so are they operating like pilots in formation and developing a new shorthand of in-game communication?
“You kinda do,” Allen nods. “‘Cause we’ve all — except for Lauri [Markkanen], he’s kind of a hybrid — but we’ve all played the same position growing up. We’ve always been the tallest people on the team, so we kind of know what each other’s going to do, and we can predict it in that way.”
As if on cue, a towering shadow falls across Allen’s legs as he laces his sneakers, and Tacko Fall, who could be the big trifecta’s air-traffic controller, grins down at Allen. It’s indicative of a deeper connection running through this Cavs team, evident on and off the floor as much as in players’ postgame interviews where they’re often paired up. Everyone likes each other, but more than that, they’re curious about one another.
It’s a gamble Altman may or may not have banked on, but one Bickerstaff’s been guiding thoughtfully in the locker room where he’s noted “something special is brewing.” Underscoring that is the notion that a center-heavy team is bound to be more watchful and necessarily steady. Bigs have to watch and wait, it’s what their whole game is predicated on. Bigs also now have to shoot the three, or fold some other aspect of development into their skillset to stay competitive. The Cavs adding a veteran pass-first point guard in Rubio signals that they’d like their bigs to take that attentiveness and care to the other end of the floor, too.
Allen received two of the Toronto crowd’s loudest reactions of the night in Cleveland’s win over the Raptors — first when he was unceremoniously flipped to the floor, and second when he jackknifed a deep three as the shot clock buzzed its stubborn assent. Allen is already taking, and making, more shots than in any of his other four seasons, averaging 14.9 per game. His three-point attempts are on par with his rookie season, when Atkinson encouraged him to let it fly. He’s connecting on 33.3 percent of his attempts, a slight but noticeable step forward from last year’s 31.6 percent mark.
Shooting more isn’t the only way Allen has expanded his offensive arsenal, nor is it necessarily his focus. Allen’s taken the unselfish way he plays, harkening back to the give-and-go chemistry he shared with LeVert in Brooklyn, and folded in the Cavs’ ethos of unselfish, scrappy basketball to use his increased touches for extra distribution. He’s dabbling in playmaking and creating offensive opportunities for his teammates, grabbing boards but kicking them out where an open second chance from deep could yield a higher reward.
Asked if he’s enjoyed these new offensive opportunities and depth and Allen nods, a smile breaking across his face. “Absolutely,” he says. “Growing up, we weren’t able to touch the ball and distribute like we are now. But now, I’m able to make the pass to the open man, the ball is getting in my hand more, and I’m making the right decisions.”
The trust to make the right decisions has been reenforced by his teammates, like Garland, who said he knows Allen is “going to make the right read,” whether from the pocket or paint. Still, the capability for this expansion in Allen’s game took work, and before he got to Cleveland where it was readily encouraged, that work came in the offseason.
“Coming into the NBA, I didn’t have the knowledge of where to make the extra pass or who to hit, the open man,” Allen says, noting that the extra offensive handling “definitely did” take some getting used to. “But as I’ve been in the league, every summer I try to work on reading plays, knowing where to be, and knowing who to pass to.”
Perhaps the most thundering affirmation of Allen’s knack for reads comes when he does what seems so natural to him, lifting to a height parallel with the rim and dunking the ball into oblivion. Since his rookie year, Allen has recorded 627 dunks (and counting), his season best in 2019-2020 with 178. For how jarringly joyful and wrenched from gravity a dunk can seem, it takes a boggling amount of exacting control. Velocity, lift, the mechanics of the brain calmly instructing limbs flying through the air what to do, all of it a perfect balance to shatter the moment and make an arena explode. Allen has long since deciphered the dunk, so how does he know when to deploy one and when to stay the steadying presence on the floor?
“It’s a feel. And everybody’s going to love the explosive dunks, so I can do that, or try to do that, whenever,” Allen says with a smile. “But sometimes you’ve gotta find the open man, sometimes the three is going to get the team going. So, you just have to be able to find the right balance.”
And because it’s difficult not to ask someone like Allen, who careens through the air so calmly and often that Brooklyn’s announcers thought to dedicate a new measure of distance — “as the fro flies” — to him, to describe the feeling of a dunk, I do.
“Ah,” he sighs, thoughtful. “It’s something you enjoy doing. It gets the crowd going. You know your teammates are going to get going. You know the crowd’s going to roar. Even if you’re in another gym, an away gym like here, you get a good dunk? The away crowd’s going to go crazy. So it just gives me that extra boost.” (But does time slow down like it does for us mere mortals, watching? “Nah, time doesn’t slow down. Everything moves so fast in this game.”)
It’s credit to Allen’s game IQ as much as it is his knowledge of self that his increased versatility is rooted in the mainstay of his defensive prowess. When the game is balanced, good defense is generative of explosive, cohesive offense. Similarly, Allen sees versatility in the center position naturally coming full-circle back to defense.
“It’s versatility on the offensive end, like you said, bigs have been able to expand their range and basically turn into guards now,” Allen says. “But now, versatility’s almost on the other side of the court, on the defensive end. Being able to guard one through five, to know how to guard different actions on that end, too.”
Allen is already one of the league’s best on that end. To counter Allen, Toronto continually threw Birch and OG Anunoby at him, doubling up in order to squeeze him out from under the basket where he seems fixed, magnetized as if toward a geographic pole, or bulldozing him before one of his feet made it past the arc, because nobody wanted him in there. Even the tie-up with Barnes came because Allen held the ball so firm in two hands it wouldn’t budge, so Barnes tried dislodging Allen, instead.
But Allen sees even more room for his defensive aptitude to improve, and it’s been sparked by the curriculum of the Cavs.
“I want to be able to switch on the guards, because that’s kind of our offense,” Allen asserts. “Or at least switch on the three men. ‘Cause we switch with our bigs. So, to be able to guard any position.”
It might be a tall order for anyone else, but Allen has landed on a team that sees him expanding his offensive reads real time, or hone his defensive specialties to fit their schemes. They don’t get hung up on any current limitations, but empower a player moving with conviction toward a peak still partially obscured, potentially much higher than had been mapped to this point.
“It’s the buy-in that he has to his teammates, to the organization, and helping this team be as good as it possibly can be,” Bickerstaff says when asked by Dime how Allen has gotten so good at knowing what his team needs and when. “He knows what his strengths are. He doesn’t try to be anybody other than who he is. He’s got the ability to dominate the paint on both ends and when he makes his mind up, we’ve seen it time and time again, he’s in there kicking ass and taking names.
“That’s just a fierce competitive nature to go get a job done and help this team win by being the best that he can possibly be,” Bikerstaff continues. “That’s what’s brewing in that locker room. Guys are trying to figure out each of them individually: ‘What’s my way to help the team?’ Jarrett has found his way.”