The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the 2022-23 NBA season with high expectations as they look to return to the playoffs proper for the first time since 2018.
Much of the attention is focused on Donovan Mitchell, an in-his-prime All-Star who cost the Cavaliers three first round NBA Draft picks, two more pick swaps, Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen and their most recent lottery pick Ochai Agbaji. Mitchell has the potential to take Cleveland to the next level as an offensive juggernaut that averaged 25.9 points last season. But with so much firepower spent on bringing Mitchell to the land, the pressure is on for him to perform.
The spotlight isn’t entirely on Mitchell, though. The three-time All-Star joins a cast of elite young talents such as fellow All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. There’s also Evan Mobley, a sophomore big man who was voted by NBA GMs as the most likely player to have a breakout season.
Together, this young trio surprised most of the basketball world last season. The Cavs finished 44-38 and narrowly missed the playoffs after a string of injuries halted their momentum.
All eyes are on Cleveland’s stars, though, a few under-the-radar factors will determine how far this team goes. Let’s run through them.
Caris LeVert’s role as the glue guy
The Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Caris LeVert at the deadline last season in the hopes that he could provide a scoring punch. With season-ending injuries to Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton, the Cavs needed a secondary scorer to ease Darius Garland’s workload.
This didn’t happen. LeVert averaged just 13.6 points in Cleveland, never finding a rhythm. He missed multiple games due to injury and his introduction to the team was rushed, at best.
With a full summer dedicated to changing his diet, overcoming a nagging foot injury and familiarizing himself with the Cavs, LeVert is set for a comeback.
LeVert’s responsibility is no longer being the team’s second-leading scorer. Instead, he’s expected to mend the gap between the backcourt and the frontcourt, serving as the Cavaliers’ glue guy.
This is the ideal role for a dynamic player such as LeVert. He can shoot, pass and defend at an above-average level. The Cavs are hoping he will do this all on a nightly basis. In the preseason, LeVert was often used as an initiator. Both Darius Garland and Donvan Mitchell took turns darting through off-ball screens while LeVert consistently made good decisions with the ball in his hands.
LeVert becoming a tertiary playmaker who has the option to pass to a shooter on the wing or dump the ball off to one of the Cavaliers’ big men will add layers to Bickerstaff’s offense. Especially if he can be a threat to score the ball himself, too.
On the defensive end, LeVert has the physical build to fill the Cavs’ gaps. He has the quickness to cover the perimeter and enough size at 6’6” to hold his own against opposing forwards.
This level of versatility on both sides of the floor is what could make LeVert an important player for Cleveland. It all depends on how effective he can be as a wing defender and shot-creator.
Isaac Okoro’s offensive development
Fans have been waiting patiently, or not so patiently, for Isaac Okoro to develop his offensive game. A strong defender who is notoriously bad at shooting the ball, could this be the season Okoro finally makes the leap as a 3-and-D threat?
The Cavaliers and a basketball robot named Noah seem to think so.
According to Chris Fedor, the Cavs have been using a computer tracking system (Noah) to monitor Okoro’s shot mechanics. Most notably his shooting arc, with the target goal of 45 degrees — deemed the perfect release by Noah.
A high-arching shot has a better chance of going into the hoop. In contrast, a more direct-line shot is less likely to drop.
Since September, Okoro has consistently been arcing the ball at around 44 degrees. Just shy of perfection but a vast improvement from the flatter sub-40 releases he had in previous years.
Consequently, Okoro looks much more confident in his movements. He’s holding his follow-through on jump shots instead of bursting to the rim to catch his own rebound.
This pairs nicely with his improved ball handle. Okoro has even dared to size up defenders on the perimeter and string together dribble moves in transition, a feat he rarely accomplished without losing the ball in his first two seasons.
Most of all, Okoro is seeing tangible results. He scored a combined 33 points on 13-16 shooting (3-5 from the three-point line) across his final two preseason games, delivering two of the most complete games of his young career.
With such a small sample size and all of it happening outside of the regular season, nobody should be expecting a superstar leap from Okoro.
But if he’s finally able to space the floor and add a competent slashing game to his already polished defense? Okoro will be a key component to the Cavaliers’ playoff hunt.
Ricky Rubio’s return
Ricky Rubio was one of the main driving forces behind Cleveland’s surprise start to last season. The 31-year-old veteran was doing things he’d never really done before. Drilling a career-high 1.7 three-pointers per game while tying his best scoring average at 13.1 points off the bench. He also paired with Garland in largely successful two-guard lineups. Per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with both Garland and Rubio on the floor outscored opponents by +16.2 points per 100 possessions.
Rubio was a steady presence who helped dig the younger, less-experienced starters out of numerous holes. Alongside fellow vet, Kevin Love, Rubio helped Cleveland’s second unit pack a serious punch.
Of course, all good things come to an end. For Rubio, this potentially career-best season ended abruptly in December when a torn ACL halted his 27-point, 13-rebound, 9-assist performance against New Orleans.
Nobody is sure when Rubio will be available to return but one thing is certain, the Cavaliers will need him at some point.
As talented as the young core is, there’s nothing quite like 10+ years of NBA experience. A weathered veteran who can reliably play minutes as a floor general will go a long way for a team full of rising stars.
Tearing an ACL at 31 is an obvious concern — even more so considering its his second ACL tear. But for Rubio, athleticism was never a selling point. His game has always been rooted in crafty decision-making paired with a high IQ and willingness to take calculated risks.
Rubio might turn the ball over multiple times a game but he sees things that other players don’t and he has the guts to swing for the fences. Sometimes this flare for excitement results in a turnover and other times, it energizes the entire arena. If his improved shooting from last season remains true then a path to full recovery is on the board.
Returning from such a massive injury is easier said than done. Fortunately, the Cavs have padded their backcourt depth with names like Caris LeVert, Donovan Mitchell and Raul Neto. This takes a load off Rubio’s shoulders once he is back on the floor. It also gives him time to return.