Through three games of the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have already battled injuries to three of their five starting players.
Max Strus and Evan Mobley are the only Cavaliers starters who have played in all three games, placing an emphasis on their ability to help Cleveland win. Winning one of their first three games, the Cavs have clearly missed the presence of their core players, perhaps most of all Darius Garland, the team leader and offensive engine.
A critical point of emphasis entering this season was the offensive development of young star Evan Mobley, the player drafted third overall in 2021. Entering his third season, Mobley has already established himself as a versatile and dominant defender, earning a spot on NBA All-Defensive First Team after his sophomore campaign. Mobley’s shortcomings have mostly emerged from the opposite end of the court where he struggles to score with confidence consistently.
It is no secret that the Cavaliers will only go as far as Evan Mobley can take them as their franchise centerpiece. If they hope to find themselves hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, Cleveland must maximize Evan Mobley on offense and develop him into a lethal scorer and playmaker.
Thus far, Mobley has notched two games with double-doubles, averaging 19 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. Mobley ended last season with 24 total double-doubles, and his improved rebounding over three games gives him a good headstart to surpass that number this year. Mobley has scored in double figures each of the three games, scoring 33 points against the Indiana Pacers and earning his third game with more than 30 points.
While Mobley has improved his scoring output to start the season, his efficiency has taken a hit, dropping to 47.7 percent on his 2-point attempts. Without Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, defenses have placed a heavier focus on stopping Mobley, and his confidence seemingly waned in the first two contests.
In game three against the Pacers, though, something changed that pushed Mobley into the forefront of the Cavaliers offense in the second half. The newest starter in Cleveland, Max Strus, developed a near instant chemistry with the young big man during training camp and preseason. Fresh off an NBA Finals run with Miami Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo, Strus pushed Mobley to study Adebayo’s film and replicate the two-man game Strus and Adebayo shared in Miami.
After the loss to the Indiana Pacers, a group of reporters, including Spencer Davies of Cavs Insider, interviewed Mobley and asked about the synergy between himself and Strus. Although it resulted in a loss, Cleveland’s match against Indiana might be their best game of the season thus far.
Mobley began by acknowledging the necessity to step up for himself, Strus and Caris LeVert. LeVert scored 22 of his 31 points in the first quarter, but the Cavaliers could not hold onto his momentum throughout the night. The lack of starpower forced Mobley to take a heavier burden on offense, and the Cleveland faithful got their first glimpse of the dynamic energy shared between Strus and Mobley.
Finding Mobley at the elbow, Strus ran numerous dribble-handoff plays followed by low pick-and-rolls, opening up a number of options for both Strus and Mobley to punish late defensive rotations or overcommitment from the Pacers, as was demonstrated by Tony Pesta of Fear The Sword.
Not only did Mobley showcase his creativity with Strus, his post control and offensive rebounding presented a new assertiveness Mobley has not shown for the majority of his career. His confidence seemed to grow sevenfold after a handful of successful runs with Strus opened up his game.
With all the injuries and missed games, Max Strus has had the most runtime with Mobley this regular season and has assisted him four times already, the most of any Cavalier. Although Max Strus was brought to Cleveland for his 3-point shooting, he is quickly showcasing a vast arsenal of talents as a two-way wing. On offense, Strus has been a lethal scoring threat, forcing defenses to gravitate toward him both on the perimeter and in the lane. This has allowed Strus to put an emphasis on his duo with Evan Mobley.
On defense, Strus has been a welcome surprise for last year’s top defensive roster. His athletic movement and active hands have led to extra possessions for Cleveland, and he joins Mobley with two double-doubles with points and rebounds this year. With a career average of 2.7 rebounds, Strus’ current average over these three games of 9.3 per game is likely unsustainable, but adding a willing rebounder to the roster will continue to play another factor in Cleveland’s offense.
So far, the Cavaliers have had a rocky start to the season but hold onto multiple bright spots that suggest serious potential for the team this season. Mobley’s offensive surge alongside Strus has been the best development so far this year, and Cleveland needs to buy into the mindset of feeding Mobley every night. If the Cavaliers can get Evan Mobley going on offense to the point of a new career-high average in points per game, then their ceiling of success as a team will grow exponentially without doubt.
This requires a team-wide mindset, though. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Cavaliers need to run plays centered around forcing the defense into a mismatch for Mobley to work his magic. Max Strus has already laid the blueprints for it, and it has worked wonders even with a depleted starting five. It is up to the rest of the team, players and coaches, to build upon that foundation.