No Cleveland Cavaliers player is under more scrutiny this year than Isaac Okoro.
The best version of Okoro - strong defender, average shooter who can attack closeouts, someone who can play late in close games - would make the 2022-23 Cavs function better. But to date, Okoro has not been that player.
Weight: 225 pounds
2021-22 stats: 67 games (61 starts), 8.8 points per game, 3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 48% from the field, 55.5% on two-pointers, 35% on three-pointers
So where does that leave Okoro? Is he a starter or will he come off of the bench? There’s a case for both.
As a starter, Okoro would be a clean defensive fit. Depending on who the Cavs are playing, he can take on the opposing team’s best wing or play at the point of attack. He’s not ideal for a wing stopper role - it’ll be asking a lot him to defend bigger initiators like Khris Middleton or Jayson Tatum in key games — but he at least has the athleticism and strength to battle. Offensively, his role could be to shoot — probably from the corner as he often did last season — cut into open space and make the most of what is available to him. Because of the shooting concerns, though, it’s not a clean fit with two bigs playing up front.
If Okoro ends up coming off the bench, he could play a similar role, but deployed in specific ways. It would make sense, for instance, to match his minutes with Mitchell (a poor defender who will need cover at the point) or Caris LeVert. It would also help to play him alongside a shooter in Kevin Love who could alleviate the spacing concerns Okoro creates.
The spacing concerns create Okoro’s offensive problems. Teams don’t respect him, so he clogs up the paint - which is particularly harmful to a team that plays two bigs, neither of whom shoot three-pointers - via his defender shifting into help defense. This means arguably his best offensive skill — attacking closeouts and going up for dunks — gets taken off the board. Very rarely does a defender react to the ball swinging his way so quickly that he can catch, go and get to the rim.
He also isn’t a particularly intuitive cutter — he often stands around, not moving on offense. Per Second Spectrum data, only Kevin Love moved less on offense than Okoro last season. That, and quick interior passing a la what Bruce Brown did for the Brooklyn Nets and now does for the Denver Nuggets, would give Okoro the functionality he needs.
No matter what his role is, Okoro’s season is going to be defined by how he fits. Last year’s improvement and the Mitchell trade have accelerated what the Cavs are doing. For Okoro, that means there’s no on-court freedom to figure out what he is or could be like there was at the end of his rookie season with the Point Okoro experience. There will be time to tinker and make adjustments this year. But those will not be for Okoro — they will be for Mitchell and Garland and Evan Mobley. He exists in their orbit.
That’s where Okoro is as he enters his third NBA season. He is still young — only 21-years-old and not 22 until early 2023 — with time to improve. (He did, for what it’s worth, improve as a shooter statistically last year despite teams continuing to act like he didn’t exist on offense.) He has real NBA skills. He will play whether he starts or comes off of the bench. But we are about to find out if those skills are enough for him to mesh with what the Cavs are building.