Kenny Atkinson and Cavaliers know maximizing Evan Mobley is best path to success

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Kenny Atkinson was head coach of the Brooklyn Nets when the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and the Nets’ unprotected pick in the 2018 draft. 

The pick was the jewel of the deal. The Nets weren’t very good after trading their future away to Boston in 2013 for an unsuccessful run at contention. By 2018, the Nets’ roster and future looked fairly bleak — until Atkinson’s up-tempo style and player development skills squeezed 28 wins out of a bad team that had no incentive to tank. The pick fell to eighth and the Cavs selected Collin Sexton.

Now that Atkinson has been introduced as the Cavs’ new coach, I kind of figure he owes them one after wrecking their future plans six years ago. 

He can settle his debt with Evan Mobley. 

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Atkinson arrived with the blessing of Donovan Mitchell, but let’s be clear: He is here to unlock Mobley. It is the key in the Cavs vaulting from a good team to a great team in an Eastern Conference that has strengthened considerably in the early days of free agency. The Cavs will flourish as Mobley learns to fly. 

“(Mobley) was a big part of our discussion during the process,” Atkinson said. “I do think we can schematically get the ball in his hands more, quite honestly, and it’s going to be multiple ways.”



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Atkinson rattled off using Mobley to bring the ball up the floor in transition, using him as a ballhandler in five-out situations when the Cavs spread the floor with shooters across the perimeter and also featuring him more in pick-and-rolls. 

If you want a comparison, think Draymond Green in his prime at Golden State. 

“Just his general usage I think can go up and we have to figure out the best positions to put him in,” Atkinson said. “I can’t wait to get on that task because I know that’s a big, big part of this.”

It’s the biggest part. Mobley’s lack of offensive growth has been a troubling concern within the organization and is a large part of the reason J.B. Bickerstaff is no longer here. 

For all that he did well as head coach — and the list is long — it’s a fair criticism that Darius Garland and Evan Mobley did not improve last year under him. 

Winning became the priority once the Cavs acquired Mitchell, but I never understood, and wrote frequently, why they couldn’t do more to get Mobley comfortable within the offense. Give him the first touch in every game. Ask him where he’s most comfortable, send him to that spot and tell him the ball is coming the first trip down the floor. Every time. 

The Cavs have insisted to teams they aren’t going to trade Garland. We still have time to see if that remains true. For now, Philadelphia has added Paul George, the Knicks acquired Mikal Bridges and the fast-improving Magic added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I’m not advocating making a trade just to look active, but the East is quickly getting better all around Cleveland. 

The Cavs’ best avenue for growth might just be figuring out Mobley in his fourth season. Atkinson has experience playing two non-shooting bigs together after the Warriors did it with Green and Kevon Looney to mixed results.

The list of teams to win championships with an undersized guard as the best player is relatively short. Isiah Thomas did it with Detroit in the 1980s and Steph Curry did it with the Warriors — although Curry was surrounded by the best shooting in the history of the league and transcendental, Hall of Fame talent around him. 

I don’t believe Mitchell will join that short list, which is why Mobley’s development is paramount. In order for the Cavs to legitimately contend with the Celtics, a healthy Bucks roster and anyone else who emerges in the East, I’ve long believed Mobley has to be the team’s best player. 

Atkinson disagreed with that Monday, although it could have been good politics. It’s standard for everyone to play nice in the sandbox on the first day. Atkinson said he believes the Cavs can contend for titles with Mitchell as the best player, while reiterating Mobley’s growth is imperative. 

“The roster that’s in place, there’s enough to take that next step,” he said. “No doubt about it. But Evan is a big piece of that. I feel a huge responsibility to help him get to that top 15-20, whatever it is.”

Atkinson’s success in Cleveland depends on it. 

(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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