Heist movies don’t usually end this well. The hero tends to be the big name who gets away with the loot they’ve secreted to a second location, while the clumsy sidekicks are left holding the proverbial bag. How often do we see the backup eclipsing the star with the quiet surety of something like gravitational pull? Knowing how big a fan he is of space — the concept, but predominantly the ever-expanding place — it feels a very specific kind of right that that’s been the case this season for Jarrett Allen.
Last January, when James Harden’s three-team trade deal sent the superstar north to the Brooklyn Nets, Allen was one of the players caught in its crosswinds. At the time, Allen to Cleveland was more or less a free roll of the dice for a team that slid into a deal to seemingly help facilitate it. But the Cavs had other ideas. Taller goals.
The Cavs offered Allen a five-year, $100 million contract in early August and soon nabbed Lauri Markkanen in a sign-and-trade with the Bulls, a deal that went from vehemently derided to compulsively questioned. The team had already drafted Evan Mobley and they couldn’t be serious about getting bigger, what was the plan here? Probably one of the least clandestine teams in the league, the plan was right there in front of everybody, but one question loomed among the rest: what was Cleveland going to do, play all three bigs at once?
Yes, exactly that.
With Mobley being a rookie, Markkanen in and out to start the season, and Allen accustomed to being asked to do a little of everything with the Nets but never being in a position to pick for himself, there were reasonable questions about the fit. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff did not care. He asked his bigs to figure each other out a little better but not on the floor, in a bigs group chat. The familiarity soon spilled over.
At the defacto halfway point of the regular season, the Cavs are 2.5 games back from first place in the East, tied up with the 76ers for third. Even including the unassuming dominance of the Bulls, they are the biggest and frankly most sublime surprise of the year. And now, for the 10th time in franchise history, Cleveland has two players in this weekend’s All-Star game with the injury replacement Allen will make for Harden, the superstar who pulled him into this supernova in the first place.
What Mobley lends in pure engine, and Darius Garland brings in range, Allen alchemizes and perfects in all-around performance. Averaging 16.2 points and 11 rebounds per game — both career highs — Allen is on pace to become the fourth player in NBA history to average 15 points and 10 rebounds a night on 66.6 percent shooting, and sits second overall in the league in true shooting percentage (68.8).
It isn’t just at the offensive end of the floor that Allen, so long only and best known for being a prolific dunker, is buoying up the team that saw him as integral to a totally new version of the future, he’s become a decidedly deadly defensive mainstay, too.
“Bigs have been able to expand their range and basically turn into guards,” Allen told Dime in November, when asked what versatility in his position meant to him. “But now, versatility is on the other side of the court, on the defensive end. Being able to guard one through five, and different actions too.”
Allen was adamant, “I want to be able to guard any position.”
At the rim, he’s holding opponents to 51.1 percent shooting — the league average is 67.6 percent — and ranks third overall in contested shots. For all the conversations around All-Star alternates who may be playing a flashier game than Allen, he ranks higher than Pascal Siakam or Jaylen Brown in player efficiency ratings, win shares (fifth overall), and defensive win shares (fourth overall).
For Allen, whose expectations have always been grounded (once even to the point of detriment — when asked during combine interviews whether he could live without basketball Allen simply answered “yes,” thinking that literally, he could — the Cavs experiment this season has borne out in its initial outlandish hypothesis largely due to his practiced, steady skill.
“Growing up, we weren’t able to touch the ball and distribute like we are now,” Allen said earlier this season. “But now I’m able to make the pass to the open man, the ball is getting in my hands more and I’m making the right decisions. It’s a feel, but sometimes you gotta find the open man, sometimes the three is going to get the team going. You just have to be able to find the right balance.”
A balanced All-Star is, traditionally, something of an anomaly — these are players best celebrated for just how explosive, how uncalibrated they can be. Still, anomalies are often the things that bear out best in history for how they come to upend the entire known formula as it stood before. At the core of what the Cavs first dared to try, experiment at, and finally perfect, is a belief in Jarrett Allen, who has made that belief pay off with an All-Star nod.