The Cleveland Cavaliers Are Winning Big in a Small-Ball League Because They Have a Secret Weapon: ‘He’s the Reason Why It Works’

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been stuck in the basement of the Eastern Conference since LeBron James left at the end of the 2017-18 season. The franchise hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs since The King took his talents to Hollywood.

But, slowly but surely, Cavs general manager Koby Altman has begun to acquire young, talented assets. The wins haven’t come consistently yet, but the bones of a competitive team are beginning to form.

Now, at least through the first few weeks of the season, those young pieces have started to gel, and those wins are beginning to come. Cleveland is doing it with a unique formula, however. In a league that covets three-and-D wings and small-ball centers, the Cavs are rolling out a starting lineup that includes three 7-footers.

And according to the team’s head coach, JB Bickerstaff, that lineup has been successful because of a secret weapon — first-year Cavalier and former Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

Lauri Markkanen was acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sign-and-trade this past offseason

Cleveland brought in Markkanen in August in a sign-and-trade deal that sent Larry Nance Jr. to Portland and Derrick Jones Jr. back to Chicago. It was an overlooked move at the time — the majority of the discussion around the trade involved either Nance’s spot next to Damian Lillard with the Blazers, or Markkanen’s assumed poor fit with the Cavs.

Cleveland already had center Jarrett Allen locked up on a five-year, $100 million deal and chose USC big man Evan Mobley with the third-overall pick in the 2020 draft. How would another 7-foot forward fit into a lineup like that?

So far, the answer is pretty seamlessly.

The former Bull has been the secret weapon in the Cavs jumbo lineup

Lauri Markkanen and his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates huddle before a game.
Lauri Markkanen and the Cleveland Cavaliers listen to teammate Denzel Valentine in the huddle during player introductions. | Jason Miller/Getty Images

Markkanen was drafted seventh overall in 2017 by the Minnesota Timberwolves and was re-routed to Chicago on draft night. The Fin eventually fell out of favor with the Bulls and head coach Billy Donovan and requested a trade.

The Cavaliers obliged and added Lauri Legend to their roster. Markkanen had spent his entire career playing power forward but is now the team’s starter at the three spot. He’s started each of Cleveland’s first five games — literally and figuratively — in an unfamiliar position.

That brings a unique set of challenges for the 24-year-old, including the task of defending smaller, quicker wings on the perimeter. Bickerstaff recently shouted out his new “small forward,” though, as the cog that makes his oversized lineup work, via Cleveland.com:

“He’s the reason why it works. … He’s the reason why we’ve been able to get away with it so far and why it’s been able to work.

“It’s different for him. I think it has impacted his shot a little bit because he’s doing some different things defensively. But the effort that he’s putting in, if he continues to do that his shots are gonna fall.”

Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff on Lauri Markkanen’s importance

Cleveland could be onto something with its unique starting five

The Cavs are obviously zigging while the rest of the NBA is zagging. But to this point, it’s worked exactly the way it was intended.

Allen is a prototypical rim-running shot blocker. He’s the paint deterrent. Mobley has adapted to the NBA game surprisingly quickly, using his athleticism to manage switches and matchups with guards. But as Bickerstaff said, Markkanen’s once questionable defensive ability has been the essential part of the scheme.

According to NBA.com, the lineup featuring that trio of bigs has logged the most minutes together. When Collin Sexton and Darius Garland accompany the big men, that lineup’s defensive rating is 87.3. With Ricky Rubio subbed in for Garland, the defensive rating drops to 86.7.

For reference, the Miami Heat lead the league with a team defensive rating of 92.0.

The Cavaliers are finding success with a non-traditional lineup and one of the best defenses in the league, and a forgotten member of another team’s rotation has been the most crucial weapon.

All statistics, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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