CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Cavaliers have always coveted a player like Jarrett Allen – a springy defensive anchor that can grow and protect with their young, undersized guards.
Because of this, they tried to act against Myles Turner, the defensive lynchpin of Indiana Pacers, on the February deadline before being turned down. Because of this, they eventually closed the deal for Andre Drummond by pre-spending their salary cap to get the two-time All-Star on board and always expecting him to go for his contract, which he did .
The Cavs saw Drummond’s impact. They went with him 4-20 in the lineup during 2019-20. They’re 5-6 in games he’s played this season.
Tuesday night was Drummond’s first absence of the season due to an Achilles bruise, and the Cavs were blown by 30 points. It also happened to be their worst defensive performance that allowed Jazz to score 117 points on 50% from the field and 53.3% from the 3-point range.
The arrival of Drummond nearly a year ago marked the first step in showing a commitment to defensive improvement – the core of the identity coach JB Bickerstaff wanted.
But Drummond will be an unreserved free agent this off-season, and initial talks with him have not gone well. An exit this summer looked more likely if it wasn’t flipped in a trade earlier. The Cavs knew they didn’t have much control over this outcome. JaVale McGee, who started at Drummond on Tuesday night, is also in the final year of his contract. Ahead of Wednesday’s smart move, the Cavs stared at a thin mid-depth map beyond this season – and a limited way to change that.
When Brooklyn called on Wednesday afternoon, the Cavs willingly jumped into the four-team-agreed James Harden blockbuster that sent shock waves through the NBA – and stole one of the league’s top youngsters.
Brooklyn got what it wanted, grabbing Harden – the swap’s deadly goalscorer and crown jewel – and joining him with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (in case he ever returns from vacation) to form a daunting trio. They gave up on all of them and realized that they couldn’t afford to keep him past this year. The Houston Rockets are likely to feel better about their future when they pick train picks to start rebuilding. Indiana traded Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert and saved money in the process.
The Cavs also benefited, adding Allen and Swingman Taurean Prince in exchange for Dante Exum, Milwaukee Bucks’ unprotected selection for the first round in 2022, which lost in value, with Giannis Antetokounmpo signing a maximum extension, and a selection for the second round 2024 for that one source named the worst good in Cleveland’s pile.
Prince, a major throwback to helping Brooklyn move money, didn’t have a great year. But a change of scene – and perhaps a bigger chance – could help revive its value. Prince will add depth to the wing. The 26-year-old former first round player is a competitive and defensive striker with the versatility of playing 3 or 4. He gives the Cavs another healthy piece of rotation as they continue to fight abrasion.
But make no mistake: this move was about Allen – a man the Cavs had almost at the top of their freelance agency board in 2021, and who was ready to go for a run this off-season.
“Delighted,” said a source when asked to describe the feeling in the building. “You get a man who is 22 years old and who is about to enter the prime of his career with our growing young core. In order to attract a player of this magnitude at this age, we acquired these assets to take advantage of these opportunities. “
The Cavs have liked the 6-foot-11 Allen for years, going back to the 2017 NBA draft. A few months ago, members of the Cleveland Front Office spoke to Brooklyn about Allen’s availability as a potential replacement for Tristan Thompson at the vacant agency. At the time, the win-now networks weren’t keen to keep going, especially given his low pay count and the way he played in the bubble.
Allen has carried it this season and shot an average of 11.2 points at 67.7%, which corresponds to 10.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 blocks in 12 games. He ranks 10th in rebounds and 9th in blocks.
On the offensive, he’s an efficient pick-and-roll finisher and a soaring praise threat who doesn’t eat up possessions or need games that require an impact – a key trait of a team with ball-dominant guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. With numbers pointing to Allen as a deadly pick and roll partner alongside Irving, the Cavs have visions of a successful Garland-Allen combo that will help unlock yet another area of Garland’s burgeoning game. Dating from 2018-19, only Rudy Gobert was used more as a screener in this particular set.
At the other end, he’s a heady backbone and elite rim protector that ranks fourth in the NBA in terms of percentage of field goals compared to players with at least 250 field goals defended in the past two seasons.
What’s the best way to minimize the shortcomings that come with playing two little guards? Surround them with defensive pieces.
The Cavs have enough early data to highlight the impact of size and rim protection on this group. With Drummond and McGee, Larry Nance Jr. disrupting the fast lanes, and rookie Isaac Okoro pestering opponents on the sidelines, the Cavs have risen to the top of the league in defensive standings – an extraordinary turn for a team that has the last both places occupied years in a row.
In the short term, Cleveland’s hub is a little cluttered. Thon Maker is being overturned and the Cavs have already received calls through McGee, sources say.
While the veteran is most likely to be bruised by the Allen encore, the rash of injury in the first few weeks makes depth a benefit. It’s up to Bickerstaff to balance the minutes and get the parts fit. Drummond, who has been fully engaged since arriving last year and has made the franchise more competitive, is said to be on board with a rotation similar to Brooklyn with DeAndre Jordan and Allen. Sources say Drummond texted General Manager Koby Altman shortly after the news, describing it as a “big deal”.
The Cavs have invested numerous resources in improving their defenses. They didn’t want to lose any of this positive dynamic. They couldn’t afford to withdraw. Given the uncertainty about Drummond’s future, they need some protection. Even if Drummond had stayed in Cleveland beyond that year, the Cavs planned to look for another piece in the forecourt.
A free agency’s potential target, Bam Adebayo, had vanished from the market and signed a massive renewal in Miami. Rudy Gobert has signed a new contract in Utah and excluded him from the possible plans. Anthony Davis, always a pipe dream anyway, made no surprise decision to stay in Los Angeles.
What’s the use of having room for a cap if there’s no one to spend it on?
In many ways, that money was intended for anyone who is a restricted free agent. This is the only way for the Cavs to have more control. You have inherited his bird rights, can potentially match any bid sheet, and are optimistic about your chances of signing him on a lucrative long-term contract. They didn’t give up a choice in the first round to make him go nuts.
Now the Cavs have over 50 games to show everyone they belong here – at the center of a promising young core that includes Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Nance, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr.
Think of this as their free agency pitch – about six months earlier than expected.
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