The acquisition of Donovan Mitchell solidifies the Cavaliers as one of the best young teams in the NBA. They already hadDarius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, so Cleveland was already in that conversation. Mitchell solidifies that fact.
But there is one question lingering for the Cavaliers as they get set for a season with playoff expectations: Who is the fifth starter?
While four of the five players in the starting lineup are set in stone, the small forward position remains open. Last year, the Cavs bucked the league-wide “small ball” trend by starting three big men – Allen, Mobley and Lauri Markkanen. That worked well, as lineups with those three had a +7.4 differential, per Cleaning the Glass. But Markkanen was shipped to Utah along with rookie Ochai Agbaji, who had some potential as a wing but would likely not have received consistent playing time. That leaves the small forward room even thinner than it was already.
On paper, Isaac Okoro should be the one to fill that spot. He has the defensive skills perhaps necessary to support Garland and Mitchell, but the offense remains a concern. He does not have the green light to create for himself outside of a dwindling shot clock or a poor closeout, but can contribute as a cutter and corner three-point shooter. At least in theory — teams have spent two years now daring Okoro to shoot by leaving him wide open in the corner. To date, they have not made him pay.
Having another capable passer in Mitchell should improve the playmaking, opening up more cutting lanes for Okoro that were once hidden due to few capable passers on the floor at once. As my colleague Chris Manning has preached, J.B. Bickerstaff should keep Okoro moving and cutting to the basket to weaponize his speed and strength. (Editor’s note from Chris: THAT’S RIGHT!)
Okoro attempted 58% of his shots at the rim and improved his accuracy at the rim from 58% to 63% from year one to year two, per Cleaning the Glass. Mitchell is also an excellent driver, which should collapse defenses and leave Okoro open in the corner. He took 24% of his shots from corner three territory, making 36% of them per Cleaning the Glass. The Cavs will need some higher volume and accuracy in that area from Okoro to make him a true 3-and-D wing to fill the gap. But the mold is there — a strong defensive presence who can hit corner threes and find open looks through cutting to the basket.
Did anyone forget about Caris LeVert? After coming over from Indiana last season, LeVert fell off a ledge offensively. Post-trade he shot worse at the rim (-5%) and mid-range (-1%) while having a high usage rate and career-worst points per shot attempt according to Cleaning the Glass. The inefficiency killed the Cavaliers at a time when offense was tough to come by, especially with Garland dealing with a back problem and Jarrett Allen breaking his finger.
LeVert will not have to be the second option this time around, which helps, but if he does not have the ball in his hands what can he provide? He is not a defensive stopper, nor a consistent shooter from deep — particularly as a catch-and-shoot option. Opposing defenses definitely have to pay attention to him more than Okoro, and that is worth something. Maybe his playmaking improves by having another capable offensive player like Mitchell available to pass to? His offensive skillset may be better suited off the bench to punish opposing benches. He can have the ball in his hands more frequently without taking away touches from the talented backcourt.
The Cavs are reportedly in no rush to extend LeVert, making him an expiring contract with a lot to prove this upcoming season. Right now, it seems like he is penciled in as the starting small forward, namely because he has more offensive punch. But the defense will certainly suffer, and his playmaking comes and goes. Not a perfect solution, but an option nonetheless.
Everyone’s favorite Cedi Osman is also worth a look, especially with how he has played for Eurobasket. The 27-year-old is averaging 16.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game on average to below-average efficiency in FIBA play. That is the story with Osman: the Cavs sort of already know what he provides. He is either flaming hot or unplayable on either side of the ball, getting blown up defensively and shooting the Cavs out of games. Osman was more efficient this past season than in 2020-2021, and is a tad taller than Okoro and LeVert. But he’s not reliable. Instead, Osman provides more capable outside shooting and high energy. When he’s hot, he looks like the perfect fit. When cold, he can be unplayable. It’s not clear how J.B. Bickerstaff really trusts him.
I wrote about Lamar Stevens last season, particularly on how he was slowly developing an offensive tool bag and finding spots on the floor he liked to shoot from. His mid-range game showed signs of consistency and he could find the floor as the backup small forward. I am not sure the coaching staff is ready to start him, but he is the mid-range-heavy version of Osman.
Dean Wade falls into the “probably will not start but is useful” category. He is 6’10” and can shoot the basketball but, maybe most importantly, he allows LeVert, Osman, and Okoro to come off the bench and anchor what should be a deep unit. Wade does not kill you, usually, and could benefit greatly from Mitchell and Garland keeping opposing defenses guessing.
The jury is technically still out on Dylan Windler, but it’ looking like this is his last chance to prove his worth. On paper, he has the active hands and shooting prowess that would be helpful on both sides of the ball alongside the core four. But health will be the determining factor in if he finds the floor or not. I am betting on the latter.
Alright, now let’s get weird. What about putting Evan Mobley at the three and starting Kevin Love at power forward? It solves the shooting issue by inserting the dangerous Love, who could benefit as a trailer when the ball is pushed up the floor. As a pick-and-pop savant, he will also get plenty of looks.
Defenses backpedaling to watch for the lob to Mobley will be quickly punished by a Love pop for three. Mobley and Allen will have to do a lot of defensive anchoring both on the interior and the perimeter, but it is an intriguing option (For what it is worth, last year, a lineup with Mobley-Love-Allen was an offensive juggernaut scoring 156.5 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass). Considering Love was so good off the bench, enough to garner Sixth Man of the Year votes, it is unlikely he suddenly starts at age 34. But the possibility exists.
Given the offensive pedigree, LeVert seems like the most likely to start at small forward. If Okoro can become a consistent shooting threat, he effectively provides what Osman does offensively with the added bonus of being a very good defender. That should be enough to garner consideration to start, but there may be a “prove it” period to see how the offense flows with him. Osman makes some sense. It will be an ongoing discussion through training camp and the early parts of the season to find out who picks up the small forward starter minutes. Right now, the Cavs have some compelling, albeit unspectacular, options.