The Cleveland Cavaliers are hoping to start fast and begin their quest for a top seed in the Eastern Conference. That means hitting the ground running for the season opener Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets and not letting up from there. If the Cavs are going to overcome the powerhouse teams in the East, they need to fight their way above them in the standings.
One impediment to that fast start may be the health of Jarrett Allen. The defensive anchor has missed the entirety of the preseason with a bone bruise on his ankle and is questionable for the start of the season.
That leads to the obvious question: if Allen can’t play, who will start in his place against the Nets?
The Cavaliers would prefer to have Allen healthy and in the lineup on Wednesday, preserving their two-big defensive system with Allen and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Evan Mobley both able to roam the paint and deter shots at the rim. The Cavs were the league’s best defense last season in large part because of how those two players magnified one another.
Once Allen is healthy, the Cavaliers will likely start the four stars — Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Mobley and Allen — with newcomer Max Strus starting at small forward. Assuming that head coach J.B. Bickerstaff preserves the rest of the lineup in Allen’s absence, who will the fifth starter be if Jarrett can’t go?
The easiest way to preserve the concept of the starting lineup is to insert another big man into the spot vacated by Allen. That could mean either Tristan Thompson or Damian Jones, who have been battling in camp for the third-string center role (behind Allen and Mobley, who will play many of his minutes at the 5). It’s not crystal clear who won the battle.
Jones is the more likely candidate, both because any role Thompson plays will need to limit his minutes and because he has the higher upside. Jones did start the Cavs’ second preseason game against the Orlando Magic alongside Mobley in a two-big look; Jones ended up with a team-worst -17 in just 11 minutes.
In the other preseason games, Bickerstaff went with a smaller look for the starting lineup. The Cavs have more depth that they trust at forward than at center, which could lead them to abandon the familiar and roll out a different, smaller, more exciting starting lineup against the Nets.
The Cavaliers tried out smaller, more spaced-out lineups in their other preseason games. They started Caris LeVert in their preseason opener and he and Strus manned the two forward spots, but that was likely too small of a look. Dean Wade started with Evan Mobley in the preseason finale against the Indiana Pacers, and that’s the best option available to replace Allen.
Wade has had an excellent preseason, showing confidence in his shot and defending well. He appears to be completely healthy, something that couldn’t be said for most of last season, and he has the size at 6’10” to still keep Cleveland big inside while also providing floor-spacing on offense and perimeter skill defensively.
Georges Niang was one of the Cavaliers’ big summer additions, brought in to improve the shooting and, theoretically, to provide an upgrade on Dean Wade. So why would the Cavs start Wade over Niang?
It’s not so much a lack of confidence in Niang but more so the reality that the starting lineup doesn’t have much defense at the three perimeter positions. Max Strus will battle on defense but he’s both small at 6’5″ and not an ideal stopper; Donovan Mitchell has elite tools but doesn’t bring them to bear, certainly not consistently.
Georges Niang battles on defense and has improved over the years on that end, but he’s the kind of player that needs to be deployed with great defenders, not the one who is going to step in and prop it up. The Cavs would need to outscore opponents at a phenomenal rate to play large stretches with Garland, Mitchell, Strus and Niang all on the court. They might be able to do that, as Niang is an elite shooter to stick with that group, but it wouldn’t be a balanced group and it would go against the priorities that this coaching staff has seemed to always have.
That makes Wade, a much better defender, the preferred pick to replace Jarrett Allen if he isn’t healthy for Wednesday’s opener. Niang would play a large role off the bench, and either Jones or Thompson would be purely the backup center.
Best lineup: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Max Strus, Dean Wade, Evan Mobey