More than halfway through the season and Cleveland Cavaliers are in an incredibly interesting spot. Nearly every advanced metric seems to indicate that the Cavaliers have the makings of being a legitimate championship contender sooner rather than later. Considering the fact that Cleveland emptied their cache of assets to acquire Donovan Mitchell, it makes sense why it appears that way. At their core, the Cavaliers are still a defensive-centric team but now have an offense that’s incredibly lethal thanks to Mitchell, a possible NBA MVP candidate.
But, at the same time, this Cleveland squad is also incredibly green compared to other contenders. Sure, there are key veterans sprinkled throughout like Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Robin Lopez that are more seasoned than most. But, at the end of the day, the key players that are part of the Cavaliers’ present and future force the team’s average age to 26.3 years old. Sure, the aforementioned veteran trio certainly ages things up a bit. But, when you look at key players like Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and even Mitchell, it makes sense why, and more importantly, how the youth movement is going strong in Cleveland.
If you’re the Cavaliers, it’s a good problem to have since you’re able to contend now all while growing for the future. But, if you’re Cleveland’s coaching staff, it’s a delicate balancing act as well. You have a monster on your hands in front of you that can go toe to toe with any team on any given night. So, naturally, the expectation is then for the Cavaliers to win. That’s totally understandable why that’s the mindset but it also can be counterintuitive at times as well.
Obviously, Cleveland has a ton of young players on its roster and all of them need time to learn and grow from both their mistakes and their successes. But, when winning is the primary objective (again, as it should be) it can also stunt growth and development for some players on the Cavaliers as well. Rotations are shortened and there are only so many Sure, you can send some of them down to the Cleveland Charge, the team’s NBA G League affiliate, to grow and develop.
Mind you, there are only so many players you can send down to that level, to begin with. So the alternative to that is to instead let Cleveland’s players learn and grow as things continuously evolve while with the main club. It’s an incredibly delicate tightrope walk that even the most skilled acrobat, let alone an NBA coaching staff, can balance. Nevertheless, Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his coaching staff are finding a way to make it work and, clearly, it’s producing results on a nightly basis.
“It’s experience,” said Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid on Monday. “You can do as much one-on-one or one-on-none as you want to but until guys go through these situations and circumstances, that’s hard to learn. I think our guys are definitely learning and trying to figure it out.”
When it comes to figuring it out as the season evolves, there’s no greater example for the Cavaliers than Isaac Okoro. Heading into the season, many expected a typical third-year leap from Okoro, this outlet as well as many others included. There was hope Okoro would become the connective tissue Cleveland for either end of the floor by providing elite perimeter defense as well as competent offensive play on a lower usage rate.
Unfortunately, Okoro struggled out of the gates for the Cavaliers and had to learn, and grow, from both his highs and his lows. There were nights Okoro would play and plenty of others where he would seldom see the floor. The defense, which was always Okoro’s strong suit, was there almost immediately. But, Okoro’s offensive game, especially in regard to his shooting, left plenty to be desired by the Cavaliers. Opponents would sag off of Okoro and when given clean looks on the perimeter, he’d miss them and eventually pass them up. His confidence seemed like it was waning and he wasn’t going to take the proverbial leap.
Nevertheless, Okoro persisted and continued to keep working on his shooting mechanics with his teammates and coaching staff. His confidence didn’t seem to wane either since he had the backing of his teammates and his coaches. Everyone within the confines of Cleveland Clinic Courts could see the potential for Okoro on either end. But, like the tightrope walks the Cavaliers undertake every day, it can sometimes take time for things to come to fruition.
“A lot of people don’t know but Ice is one of the hardest workers when it comes to shooting the three-point ball,” said Jarrett Allen. “Every time we go to shootaround, practice, Ice is the first one in and the last one out.”
Since January 4, when the Cavaliers hosted the Phoneix Suns, Okoro has been the team’s starting small forward. While out there with the starting group, you’re starting to see the flashes of potential become something more tangible. In 21.6 minutes per game, Okoro has averaged 8.3 points on 52.5% shooting and has connected on 52.6% of his three-point attempts as well. Okoro is also adding in 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game in this stretch as well, showing the two-way potential many hoped Okoro would have right away as well.
Sure, it’s a seven-game sample size so it feels somewhat small when comparing it to the 44 total appearances Okoro has had this season. But, considering how Cleveland’s starting small forward spot has been a bit of a revolving door this season, Okoro has been exactly what the team has needed as a low-usage, low-maintenance small forward that can make defenses pay for keeping him open all while drawing the no. 1 perimeter assignment on defense as well.
Mind you, Okoro isn’t the only Cavaliers player starting to live up to expectations either more than halfway through the season. You’re seeing it from Allen, who is becoming more involved as a facilitator and has become an All-Defensive candidate as well. You’re seeing it from Evan Mobley, who has become one of the NBA’s more unique, multifaceted players on either end of the floor. You’re seeing it from Darius Garland, who is averaging nearly the same numbers statistically from last season all while walking a tightrope, trying to build a rapport with his new backcourt partner in Mitchell. Speaking of Cleveland’s newest guard, you’re seeing a more locked-in player on the defensive side of the ball, which is somewhat unexpected after his time with the Utah Jazz.
“Things just don’t happen at the snap of your fingers, it takes a lot of hard work,” said Allen to Right Down Euclid on Monday. “We’re young guys. We’re still trying to figure out our place in this league and what our identity is going to be. We know what we want it to be but we still have to work our way up to having that standard every single night. You guys are all seeing how we’re doing. We all have our off nights but when we’re on, we’re on.”
Finding their way and finding their balance on this proverbial tightrope walk has been a challenge for the Cavaliers. It frankly can be for any team in the NBA. But, it’s also not one that Cleveland shies away from either, however. They’re still growing and finding their way as Allen noted all while already showing signs as one of the NBA’s possible elite. Sure, there’s still a way to go for the Cavaliers but to some, it feels like it’s only going to improve from here on out.
“We’re a hardworking, young team,” said Darius Garland to Right Down Euclid. “We’re working towards that. Whether it’s the playoffs or not, we have goals to be that. We’re making a lot of strides toward that even though there’s still a lot of stuff we still need to work on. We go and look at the film every day. We go and talk to each other in our group chat about stuff. It’s a work in progress and everybody’s seeing the progress from over the years and it’s only up from here.”
A while ago, Right Down Euclid wrote about how the Cavaliers had the potential to be one of the most balanced teams in the NBA. Even today, that still rings true on a nightly basis. As this young Cleveland squad continues to learn and grow, their status as a contender becomes even more legitimate. As Garland said, the only way to go from here for the Cavaliers is onward and upward.
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 [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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