There seems to be less misery in the air, this season. This is the kind of thing you can just say, since there are no metrics for it, but most of us probably agree that last year was shot through with drudgery and depression, players and coaches who weren’t fully engaged or remotely happy in their work. Everybody was wearily traversing the slate of games, like railway workers carving tunnels through mountainsides, heavy with dread and unsure when next they might see open country. The world is not post-pandemic—that would take collective action we can’t muster; leaders are stubbornly wedded to commerce and people are stubborn by themselves—but it is a little more pleasant to live in than it was some eight or nine months ago. There is space once again for optimism, in the NBA and everywhere else.
And to put it bluntly, there aren’t many teams that flat out suck. The Pelicans are a disaster and the Magic and Thunder continue with rebuilds that should come to fruition around 2027, or not at all, but even the “bad” squads are more like underachievers than straightforward bummers. Your struggling Celtics, your out of sorts Pacers, et al. And there is a rich middle class of teams that are Up To Stuff. That is the phrase for it, in mid-November. Dubbing anybody who doesn’t employ a couple superstars Genuinely Good before January is a foolish move. There are always rabbits that come back to the pack, groups that for whatever reason show up for the season sharper than most and then it turns out they don’t have a second gear. The Wizards could be .500 by the time 2022 arrives. The Jazz no longer get credit for their regular season proficiency. But they are welcome presences, pleasant to watch and to think about.
Here’s a name that’s been lying dormant in its grave since LeBron left town: the Cleveland Cavaliers. For two years now, they’ve been ready to take the next step, or that’s been the drumbeat out of the front office and from PR staffers, and then the season tips off and they immediately sink toward the league’s basement. Because Kevin Love is bored, banged up, and washed up and you can’t build a functioning team around two six-foot-nothing guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. What they’ve proposed so far this season is: maybe you can? You would, of course, need some kind of rim-protecting center (a Jarrett Allen), a couple bigger, more defensively sound guards to rotate into your munchkin backcourt (a Ricky Rubio, an Isaac Okoro). If you could get, like, a seven-foot athlete who can hang with anybody, close out to the perimeter, switch on screens, telescope his arms into passing lanes, and block and bother shots from the weak side, that would be ideal. But there aren’t many of those guys kicking around. Fortunately, it turns out that Evan Mobley is one of them. His professional career is all of 12 games, but he’s already definitely one of them.
There have been other positive developments contributing to the Cavs’ early 7-and-5 record, which includes nice wins over the Knicks, Hawks, and Nuggets, but Mobley is the player who makes everything that they’ve been doing make sense. Allen and Rubio have played solid two-way ball. Lauri Markkanen has spaced the floor and canned some jumpers. Mobley has been downright transformative.
He’s shifting between the three and the four, though it doesn’t particularly matter which spot he’s occupying on defense because he checks whoever’s in front of him and is constantly crowding spaces the other team is trying to get into. Like, dude is just in the way a lot, tipping passes and jabbing his fingertips into the faces of slashing guards and forwards. Whatever amount of room you think you have to operate, if you’re in Mobley’s general vicinity, you have less of it. Opposing offensive players breeze past Garland or Sexton to discover that, shoot, their task is far from complete. The Cavs defense used to border on historically terrible. With Mobley, it’s not half-bad.
When we say a young big man is figuring it out on offense, we usually mean he can catch lobs and that’s about it. We mean he lacks coordination, can hardly pass or shoot. Mobley is figuring out offense in that he is figuring out how to be genuinely very good at it. He’s already a talented passer and has a solid sense of where he should be on the floor at any given time. His stroke is pure by non-Kevin Durant seven-footer standards, like a young Anthony Davis or Kevin Garnett. He gets his 14-to-19 points per night effortlessly, within the flow of the offense, and almost never appears to be pressing. And that works perfectly for the Cavs, as currently constructed. They have guys—Garland, Sexton, Markkanen—who need to shoot in order to make the most of their minutes. Mobley fills in the gaps, hangs back or asserts himself as necessary.
Let’s spoil this precious optimism by predicting it goes, for Cleveland or for Mobley himself. They’re both on such long timelines that we should be content to lean back and watch their basketball happen. Collin Sexton has a torn meniscus that will keep him on the shelf for a while, and require the Cavs to reshuffle some tasks. Whatever needs doing, early evidence suggests that Evan Mobley will adapt to at staggering speed. He seems to be what Cleveland has been looking for, a player who with his abundant and adaptable skills, casts the play of everyone around him in a rosier light. A glue guy with gifts like a star. It’s too early to say but perhaps with his help, the Cavs will properly ascend. For now, they are blessedly quite a lot of fun.