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Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer
THE NEMACOLIN RESORT is tucked into the hills of southern Pennsylvania, a high-end property with a chateau hotel, two golf courses and a modern spa with everything from gentlemen's facials to IV nutrient infusions.
In September, the Cleveland Cavaliers' coaching staff checked in for a stay and enjoyed absolutely none of it.
For days, the group, led by coach J.B. Bickerstaff, was holed up in a conference room watching film, studying analytics and working through meals.
"It's a really nice place," Bickerstaff says. "But we mostly worked."
Preseason coaching retreats are common in the NBA, but the mission the Cavs had for that trip was not. In a league that has been on a decadelong march to get smaller and faster, the Cavs were workshopping how they were going to get bigger.
Bigger, in fact, than anything the NBA has seen in a generation.
And so what began inside a hotel conference room some 70 miles south of Pittsburgh has knocked a procession of teams off balance throughout a league that has become infatuated with small ball.
Using a starting lineup featuring three 7-footers and reintegrating a former All-Star big man, the Cavs have big-footed their way into Eastern Conference contention. And doing so has not only changed the fortunes of a franchise not long ago predicted to continue its residence in the East basement, but also served as a resurrection that could disrupt NBA roster construction.
LAST MAY, CAVS general manager Koby Altman held a brutal season-ending news conference. He was asked if he thought he might get fired after a 22-50 season that capped a three-year run during which the team had amassed the most losses in the NBA.
Altman was grilled about young guard Kevin Porter Jr., who showed flashes of brilliance with the Houston Rockets after he'd washed out with the Cavs following a series of off-court issues. He had to explain how the midseason trade for center Jarrett Allen had disrupted chemistry and led to a buyout of center Andre Drummond.
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Altman had to dance around the future of disgruntled center Kevin Love, whose injuries and disillusionment with the team had led to an escalating series of embarrassing events, from him inbounding the ball to the opposing team to just refusing to shoot.
As Altman sat on that Zoom call, he said he and owner Dan Gilbert had the same vision. He explained that rebuilding teams take chances on draft picks and miss, and he wished Porter the best. He said he tried to do right by Drummond by letting him go, and that the trade for Allen was too compelling not to do. And Altman said -- and this may have been the hardest to believe -- he thought Love "can really help us, I really do."
Altman was convinced there were small victories all around him. He knew that young guard Darius Garland had a 25-game stretch after the All-Star break where he'd shown tremendous growth, averaging 20 points and seven assists while shooting 47%. He knew that the team's internal numbers had shown Allen, whom they picked up from the Nets as part of the James Harden trade, was their most effective player. He knew that as bad as things looked with Love, that the numbers had shown the team was better when he was out there. And when he had talked to his players, they said they liked playing with Love when he was actually focused.
"There's a lot of optimism as to where we are as a franchise," Altman said that day. "The future's really, really bright."
You could almost hear the eyes rolling.
"It wasn't a dark place when we were losing," Altman says now, seven months later. "We were there, we saw it. People liked coming to work. They stayed in the offseason. J.B. had worked hard to make it a welcoming place, and you felt that."
No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley is a front-runner for Rookie of the Year. David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
THEN, SOME LUCK. Projected to land the No. 5 pick, the Cavaliers heard their name called at No. 3 during June's draft lottery, a vital turn for a team in need of game-changing talent. Some years the No. 3 pick is a gold mine. Luka Doncic went third. So did Harden and Joel Embiid. But it's no guarantee, either: Jahlil Okafor, Otto Porter Jr. and Enes Freedom all were selected there in the previous decade.
Following the selections of Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, the consensus top two picks in the 2021 draft, Evan Mobley from USC was on the board.
There was no mystery in the first two picks in the draft and for weeks the Cavs felt confident it was going to be Mobley there for them at three. So they dove deep on him. They'd already watched him a lot in his one season with the Trojans and their background data kept checking out positive.
They loved Mobley's size combined with his skill. They loved his attitude as the son of a coach, who their research told them liked to be coached. They loved his work ethic, a feeling solidified after the draft when he asked the team if they could send a strength coach to work with him in Los Angeles in the offseason.
The Cavs had been in the lottery four straight years since LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers, but this was the first time they were able to get an immediate difference-maker, a belief that has been backed up by his role in the Cavs' turnaround.
But teams always fall in love with their picks. The Cavs weren't just going against the grain; they were committing to a path that would be difficult, if not impossible, to untangle.
Four days after drafting Mobley, the team signed Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract. Some draft experts and scouts projected Mobley could develop into a franchise center in the current taste of the NBA. In truth, Mobley and his camp thought this was possible too, so when Allen got paid there was some chin rubbing.
"People were looking at us sideways. It's one thing to be big but we felt Jarrett and Evan were big and active. It was building around that."
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff
Twenty-five days after that, the Cavs acquired 7-footer Lauri Markkanen from the Chicago Bulls -- and then didn't make a move with Love, either via a trade or a buyout as some had expected.
Back in the hotel conference room, Bickerstaff and his assistants churned through their most fundamental question: How do you design an offensive and defensive system with two centers in 2021?
Bickerstaff, 42, has been around the NBA a long time. This is his 18th season in the league, but he was a ball boy and sponge as a child next to his father, longtime NBA coach and executive Bernie Bickerstaff. Translation: He's new-school as a head coach; old-school in philosophy.
Ask him about his favorite teams and he'll talk about the 1990s, when his dad was GM of the Seattle SuperSonics and they started three guys 6-foot-10 and taller. He'll talk about when his dad drafted 6-foot-8 Jalen Rose to the Denver Nuggets and made him a point guard.
Lessons, he says, that inform now.
"People were looking at us sideways," Bickerstaff says. "It's one thing to be big but we felt Jarrett and Evan were big and active. It was building around that."
Says Altman: "We watched a lot of film and we looked at the last few champions. They were great defensive teams. The Bucks had Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and [Brook] Lopez. The Lakers had LeBron, [Anthony] Davis and [Dwight] Howard. They played big and they won.
"We didn't see Evan as a player exactly like Jarrett and thought they could play together."
CLEVELAND'S BIG SWING has been working. The Cavs ranked No. 25 in defense last season, and in 2019-20, when Bickerstaff took over midseason after John Beilein resigned, they ranked dead last.
This season, with Allen and Mobley, who are both mobile enough to switch out and defend the perimeter and long and defensive-minded enough to challenge shots in the paint, the Cavs' defense has soared up the rankings, settling in at No. 2 behind the NBA-best Golden State Warriors.
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Their size has overwhelmed opponents, who are shooting a league-worst 59.3% in the restricted area against them. It's the bedrock for their turnaround, which has them 20-13 and in position to challenge for a top-four seed.
"The other teams really feel that size," Bickerstaff says.
The Cavs initially signed Markkanen to be a backup. After the signing, Altman met with Love. He told the veteran, who had two years and $60 million left on his contract, that he'd be a bench player for the first time in his career.
Love accepted the situation but had a request: If he earned minutes, he wanted to get them. Love saw veterans with big contracts get stuck when teams went young, namely John Wall in Houston, and wanted to know he wouldn't be buried to wait out his contract.
There was something else in mind for Love. Over the summer, Altman traded for Ricky Rubio to be a stabilizing backup guard. But it was also someone Love could connect with on the second unit. They played three seasons together in Minnesota, where Love became an All-Star.
Love came into camp in September in good condition -- which was in some doubt after he left Team USA training in July after struggling to get into shape. With limited depth on the wing, Bickerstaff made the decision to put Markkanen in the starting lineup at small forward so Love would have more room to play.
"I thought we had a tremendous offseason by getting Evan, Lauri and Rubio," Altman says. "We had [a] process and ping pong balls. But I really liked our top seven to eight guys and I knew we were going to take a step forward."
a 26-56 season. The decision to start the three 7-footers was mocked. They gave up 255 points combined in their first two games. Then, 11 games in, Collin Sexton, Cleveland's leading scorer last season, was lost for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
But the Cavs started winning. Garland, with more playing time with Sexton out, expanded his play from last season and is a sudden All-Star candidate, averaging 19.5 points and 7.3 assists per game. Allen, whose big contract was questioned, has been a defensive rock and extremely efficient offensively, averaging a career-high 16.8 points and shooting 70%.
Mobley, 20, has shown he can shoot, pass and defend multiple positions. It is rare for a rookie to impact winning, but he's doing so. He is one of the front-runners for Rookie of the Year despite missing time with a sprained right elbow.
Love, for his part, is having his most efficient season since he came to the Cavs in 2014-15. He plays 20 minutes a game and has maintained a positive attitude throughout the season.
"We've got a good thing going and I'm having a lot of fun," Love said after he scored 22 points in a blowout win over the Toronto Raptors Sunday night. "It's going to be great watching this young team develop."
Through nearly half the season, the Cavs have played the toughest schedule of any team so far. Despite injuries and COVID-19 issues, Bickerstaff has them racking up milestones. They went 3-2 on an early Western Conference-heavy road swing, the first time they've had a winning record on a five-game trip since their title-winning 2016 campaign. They won in Miami for the first time in 20 tries. And they have the easiest schedule remaining.
On Christmas, the Cavs announced a contract extension for Bickerstaff through the 2026-27 season, the first time a Cavs coach has landed an extension since Mike Brown in 2008.
The team still has holes, notably at wing. But it is unquestionably overachieving -- a welcomed situation for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs without James on the roster since 1998.
"We're not done evolving," Bickerstaff says. "But we like where we are."
sucks but the timing isn’t too bad. Everyone should be back this week. Just hope Rubio can avoid it for a few more games. I think he’s the last one not to get it yet
we really just aren't allowed to have nice things
This is why we can't have nice things Cleveland.
I had great seats for the game tonight
That Nike money
Love this team
Darius was so good tonight
We’ve got two future consistent all-stars in Garland and Mobley, two fantastic high end complementary pieces in Allen and Sexton, one potential high end developmental piece in Okoro, a flyer on Lauri, and tons of great role players
what an absolute dream Vs 2 years ago