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It's been nearly six months but the Cleveland Cavaliers were back in action this week opening up their season against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks. Despite going 1-2 through these early beginnings, there is plenty to glean early into the season and to focus on going forward. Like, what the heck is head coach J.B. Bickerstaff doing with the team's starting lineup? Why are the Cavaliers so invested in going big and bucking the trend of conventional means? We'll talk about this, and a few key observations takeaways from the first week of basketball for Cleveland.
Isaac Okoro's new reserve role
In a surprise to some, when the Cavaliers opened their season in Memphis, Isaac Okoro was absent from the team's starting lineup. In his place was recently acquired big man Lauri Markkanen. Okoro, who Cleveland selected fifth-overall in last year's draft, has already made a case for being one of the team's best overall perimeter defenders. In a league that's become so three-point-centric and overly reliant on smaller, faster players to provide offensive momentum, why would Okoro not be a starter instead of primary option off the bench?
Well, it's complicated and a lot of it hinges on Okoro's lack of offensive production. Coming out of Auburn, there were concerns about Okoro's lack of a three-point shot. His mechanics by no means were broken, but they did need some fine-tuning at the next level in order for him not to be a liability on the perimeter. So far, refining those mechanics is still a work in progress for Okoro. Which is totally fine, Rome wasn't built in a day and this young Cavaliers team has a long way's to go overall.
But, that lack of spacing on Okoro's side of things isn't what Cleveland needs right now. Their crown jewel, and likely future of the team, is rookie big man Evan Mobley. Mobley, who is currently penciled in as the starting four for the Cavaliers, has been on the floor at any and all times with some form of spacing to allow him to operate offensively. That doesn't mean that Okoro is totally unplayable alongside Mobley – it's actually quite the opposite. Defensively, the potential between this tandem is incredible and could be an overwhelming force within a season or two.
That's all well and good but it isn't conducive to growth right now for Mobley, who as mentioned before is the future of the Cavaliers. So, for now, that's why Cleveland has benched Okoro in favor of Markannen. Markkanen, who is an elite three-point shooter, provides that spacing that Mobley so desperately needs to grow. Again, that doesn't mean that Okoro will be glued to the bench forever – it'll just take time for when his shot eventually comes around. But, it has led to an interesting stylistic choice for the Cavaliers offensively as well.
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Newly acquired big man Lauri Markkanen has supplanted Isaac Okoro as the team's starting small forward. While it's hard to glean much data this early into the season, the results have been mixed so far.
Is bigger always better?
Markannen, along with Mobley and Cleveland big man Jarrett Allen, are among some of the biggest players on the team's roster. That by itself already is unique given most basketball circumstances. The fact that all three are starting on a night-to-night basis is almost unheard of by any conventional means of modern basketball. If anything, teams want to subscribe to a smaller, faster-paced style of play. The ideal teams to emulate in this scenario are the Brooklyn Nets or the Golden State Warriors of the past.
But, that's only if you view this team through the lens of traditional basketball since Bickerstaff certainly isn't. In Bickerstaff's eyes, the Cavaliers need to play a faster, more modern brand of basketball that takes and hopefully makes more three-pointers. He also thinks that becomes easier if you establish a presence on the interior due to your abundance of size. Bickerstaff also firmly believes that Cleveland should start any given game with the five best players on the court.
That means that having Markkanen out there alongside Mobley and Allen is a pre-requisite for what Bickerstaff is trying to accomplish with his team this season. But, how have things looked so far is the real question? Given that the Cavaliers have only played three games, it's an extremely small sample size. But, so far, it's looked solid on the offensive side of the ball with Allen and Mobley being two of Cleveland's top scorers, mostly on the interior. Markkanen, meanwhile, has been one of the team's better three-point shooters as well – connecting on 33.3% a night.
Defensively, meanwhile, it has looked better but it's still a work in progress overall for the Cavaliers. The combination of Mobley and Allen alone will be an interior force on a night-to-night basis. The issue instead lies in Markkanen being forced to guard the perimeter. Teams like Memphis and Atlanta, who feature superstar guards in Ja Morant and Trae Young, have made a concerted effort to force Markkanen onto them to get an easier bucket. Ditto can be said for Markkanen's primary defensive options as well. Whether it was Desmond Bane or Miles Bridges, both had career-best nights with Markkanen defending them.
There are also the rebounding issues this trio has been dealing with, but Bickerstaff thinks that's more on the Tower City lineup getting comfortable with one another on the floor. But, the more glaring issue is Markkanen's lack of defensive ability that's holding this team back. Sure, the lineup is a fun wrinkle for Bickerstaff to deploy. But, when LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are on the docket for Cleveland next week, things could get ugly fast.
Collin Sexton is putting up career numbers despite a severe reduction in overall touches on offense for the Cavaliers this season.
The lack of Collin Sexton on offense
With Cleveland playing bigger, things have changed overall for the team offensively as well. Heading into their Saturday night tilt against the Hawks, Ricky Rubio (73.0) and Daris Garland (69.0) led the team in overall touches. This makes perfect sense since the Cavaliers obviously want their point guards to run the offense on a night-to-night basis. After those two, it's Mobley who was averaging 60.5 touches per game heading into Cleveland's game against Atlanta. Again, this makes perfect sense since you want your prized star rookie to get as many touches as possible in order to get comfortable as he develops.
After that, it becomes surprising. Collin Sexton is getting the fourth-most touches per game with 53.0 looks per game prior to the game against the Hawks. For context, Sexton averaged 76.6 touches per game last season for the Cavaliers. Despite this sudden change in offensive availability, Sexton is still averaging a career-best 25.0 points per game prior to the Atlanta game. Granted, that's the only thing Sexton is producing since he's averaging a career-worst 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game before facing the Hawks.
Maybe this is a sign of things to come for both Sexton and Cleveland. Since, according to sources, the team has weighed their options internally in regards to eventually benching Sexton in favor of the defensive potential of Okoro alongside Garland. This type of overall production for Sexton would line up nicely for a supercharged sixth-man role for the Cavaliers. Mind you, this is by no means is that an indictment on Sexton's ability as a player. Rather, it better sets up Cleveland to be able to win on a nightly basis. Besides, it shouldn't matter whether or not you start. It only matters if you finish, which Sexton should still see plenty of.
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