In a little over a day's time, the Cleveland Cavaliers will open up their season in Toronto against the Raptors. That game, along with another road game against the Chicago Bulls before heading home, will be a good test for the new-look Cavaliers to open things up.
Of course, it's going to be a good test for the new starting tandem of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. But, it's also going to be a test for the team's starting small forward as well. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that he will have the final member of his starting unit figured out by the time things open on Wednesday. He won't tell anyone other than the coaching staff who it will be so, for now, it's up to us to speculate on who it should be.
Hopefully, he figures it out soon since there was a ton of speculation outside the team about who should start at small forward for the Cavaliers. Bickerstaff even joked with the media after practice concluded one day that everyone is more worried about it than he and his staff. To be fair to Bickerstaff, figuring out the starting small forward spot is, of course, a concern to him. But, Bickerstaff also is a firm believer in the process and that things would figure themselves out on the court during preseason play.
To Bickerstaff's credit, it appears a candidate has emerged in Caris Levert. In 75% of Cleveland's preseason games, LeVert has drawn the start at small forward. In those three starts, LeVert averaged 11.7 points on 52.4% shooting along with 2.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals in roughly 22 minutes per game.
Sure, it's the preseason, but LeVert is showing glimpses of why the Cavaliers gave up a first-round selection last year to the Indiana Pacers in order to obtain him. He's finally comfortable in his new situation and, more importantly, healthy, which makes him more reliable on a night-to-night basis. That was a fairly loud concern in regards to LeVert in general heading into the season. So far, so good in keeping those at bay.
The concern that was a bit quieter, but still somewhat loud, was how LeVert would look playing alongside Garland and Mitchell in the starting unit. In terms of skillset, all three players function best with the ball in their hands more often than not. With Garland and Mitchell being the star-studded duo that will do everything on offense for Cleveland, it would naturally lead to fewer opportunities for LeVert.
But, during his showings on the floor with Garland and Mitchell, LeVert has been great. LeVert has adapted to having fewer opportunities with the ball in his hand and instead become a connective piece between the offense and defense, something Cleveland needs from their starting small forward. When the offense does swing his way, LeVert has looked strong as well and in the eyes of some of his teammates, can take things to another level.
"He's going to be really lethal. When me and Donovan are up top, there's not a lot you can do with us," said Garland last week. "Which means you've got to help a lot, which means Caris is open a lot more. He's going to have a lot more opportunities in catch and shoots, attacking on closeouts, which he does best, getting to the rim and getting that floater. Caris is going to be really effective for us for sure this year."
Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro has made a strong case during preseason to start at small forward as well. But, is it enough to surpass Caris LeVert at this time? Photo credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Having a glowing endorsement from Garland strengthens LeVert's case as Cleveland's starting small forward. Doubly so when coming from Bickerstaff. Prior to the Cavaliers' preseason tilt against the Atlanta Hawks, Bickerstaff was asked about whether or not he had settled on LeVert as the team's starting three. Bickerstaff declined to commit, which is something he's prone to do. But, he did follow up with something interesting in regards to LeVert.
"He has done everything right to earn the spot," said Bickerstaff on Wednesday. "Again, whatever decision we make at the beginning of the year, I always hold the card and will pull it back whenever we need to make an adjustment. But, he has done everything to earn that spot."
Those adjustments Bickerstaff is talking about are likely in regard to Isaac Okoro, who will be the primary backup to LeVert to start the season. Okoro, like LeVert, has had a strong preseason – averaging 10.5 points on 59.2% shooting along with 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 assists in roughly 23.5 minutes per game.
With Okoro, there's more defensive upside than offensive output like there is with LeVert. But, the question still remains whether or not Okoro is an offensive liability on the court for the Cavaliers this season. Sure, he had two very strong games to close out the preseason. But, with how inconsistent Okoro has been on offense up to this point, it's fair to question how sustainable the sudden preseason outburst is. Was it a product of Okoro picking on weaker opposition? Or, was it instead a sign of things to come?
For now, folks should circle back to this conversation after the first 10 to 15 games this season. If Okoro is still running hot, Bickerstaff may have to pull back the cards and cede the starting small forward spot to him. If Okoro is still showing inconsistency, especially on the perimeter, then the Cavaliers can stick with LeVert as the first option on the wing.
Cleveland's starting small forward is going to be something that's worth monitoring for a while until a serious candidate emerges. They do have two options in-house in LeVert and Okoro and, for now, LeVert popped more on both ends of the floor. But, again, things can change as the season goes on as both LeVert and Okoro push one another, competing and earning their stripes. It's a good problem to have if you're the Cavaliers and, hopefully, it helps make the difference in a push to make the playoffs.
Featured image credit: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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