With expectations heightened, Isaac Okoro is now the biggest variable for the Cleveland Cavaliers

After acquiring Donovan Mitchell, the battle for Cleveland's starting small forward position just became wide open with Isaac Okoro being the logical front runner.

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You may have missed it so, in case you didn't know, the Cleveland Cavaliers became a serious force in the Eastern Conference last week. After sending Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji and a boatload of picks to the Utah Jazz, the Cavaliers received Donovan Mitchell, one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. Mitchell, a three-time All-Star, now joins a star-studded starting lineup with fellow All-Stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen as well as Evan Mobley, who will likely be the best player on the Cavaliers one day soon.

Mind you, trading for a star like Mitchell accelerates expectations, but it’s the furthest thing from an absolute. Again, Cleveland has four stars in its starting lineup and that alone could get the ball rolling toward forming a serious power in the Eastern Conference. But, the Cavaliers also need to crawl before they can ball and there are going to be growing pains. Figuring out how to factor Mitchell into the fold on offense alongside Garland will be the most pressing issue early into the season. Both are All-Star players and need to find harmony on the floor together and find the appropriate times to take their shots or defer to the other. But, when Garland and Mitchell, along with Mobley and Allen, are all humming on offense, the wins should start easily rolling out for Cleveland.

But, that's only 80% of the team's starting lineup heading into next season. When it comes to small forward, which has been a turnstile of faces after LeBron James left for the second time, that's still a wide open spot for Cleveland. Last season it was Lauri Markkanen holding things down. But, Markkanen is now a member of the Jazz so, once again, the spot is wide open for Cleveland.

The only thing that's different this year compared to prior seasons is that the Cavaliers don't need a ton at the starting three spot. Cleveland is loaded on the offensive side of the ball behind Mitchell and Garland. On defense, meanwhile, it's more of the same but with the interior being smothered by the tandem of Mobley and Allen locking things down. So, more than anything, what the Cavaliers need in a starting small forward is a common thread that can tie together both ends of the floor.

They had that, in theory, in Agbaji – who projects to be a lockdown defender on the perimeter and could also be reliable from beyond the arc as well. That's all well in good but it's only in theory as no one can fully predict where Agbaji will be this early into his NBA career. He's also a member of the Jazz now so dwelling too long on the idea of it feels almost like a moot point. Instead, Cleveland have to look at who remains on the depth chart in order to find a more realistic solution for next season.

With that said, it'll likely be decided in training camp and the preseason as Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff holds an open competition for the spot. While some may argue there will be several candidates in the running, the only serious options at the end of the day are Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro. Mind you, this is no disrespect to the likes of Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens, two undrafted power forwards that have converted to small forward full time. It's just that neither Stevens, the worst three-point shooting wing on Cleveland's roster, nor Wade, coming off a torn meniscus, have the juice compared to LeVert or Okoro.

So, if it's a two-horse race, who should the starting honors go to? When factoring in what exactly the Cavaliers need at the three, it becomes even more clear that the answer is Okoro. The best way for Cleveland to maximize LeVert requires the ball to be in the slashing guard's hands, which is something that doesn't become possible when having to share serious minutes with Mitchell and Garland to start games.

Mind you, that doesn't mean that LeVert cannot coexist with the team's star backcourt. But, after losing Sexton, Markkanen and Agbaji the Cavaliers need to find balance on both ends of the floor and between their starting lineup and bench rotation. That's why if Cleveland deploys LeVert as a super sixth man, similarly to how they wanted to use Sexton, it enables the Cavaliers to maximize his potential with the ball in his hands more often than not.

The Cavaliers need balance in the starting lineup and off the bench. That's why having Caris LeVert act as the team's super sixth man makes more than enough sense. Image credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Cleveland not having LeVert in the starting lineup won't hinder things either. There is more than enough scoring to go around in the starting unit between Garland and Mitchell alone. That's where Okoro, who is a relatively low-usage player, comes into play for Cleveland as that connective thread on both ends of the floor. On defense, Okoro is the team's best perimeter defender and is usually tasked with defending the biggest perimeter threat on a night-to-night basis. Okoro could continue that grindset in the newly-formed starting five and also help cover for some of the defensive woes that Garland and Mitchell together will possess. If you factor that in with Mobley and Allen's interior presence, and you have a very strong defensive unit heading into next season for the Cavaliers.

Unfortunately, where Okoro is the biggest variable and has serious concerns is on the offensive side of the ball. Okoro shared with the media last season that he was struggling to learn to play off of others on the floor. For a second-year player who mostly played with the ball in his hands in high school and at Auburn, that makes sense. So, when you saw Okoro struggling to find consistency, all while Cleveland didn't have the runway to continue to develop, it makes a lot more sense that he was learning a whole new style of play.

But, it's more than just that when it comes to Okoro and his offensive game. Coming out of Auburn, there were concerns about Okoro's ability as a three-point shooter. Mind you, his mechanics weren't broken – he just was inconsistent from beyond the arc in college. Fast forward to the beginning of his third season, and it's still a concern in what's becoming a make-or-break season for the young forward. More often than not, opposing defenses sagged off Okoro and muddied up the lane or pressured Garland instead last season. As a team that's expected to make a serious push in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland cannot afford to have that for the third season in a row with Okoro.

Thankfully, Okoro acknowledged during his exit interviews with the media that he and the Cavaliers both agreed that he needed to improve in all facets of offense, shooting included. Sources share with Right Down Euclid that Okoro has been working tirelessly at Auburn during the offseason on his offensive game, trying to find consistency beyond the arc prior to the start of training camp. Granted, the difference between individual workouts and actual five-on-five action that Okoro's shooting will face is vast. But, it's a hopeful sign of things to come this upcoming season.

The thing is, Cleveland doesn't need Okoro to be a lights-out shooter from beyond the arc this season nor should they expect that from him. They just need him to be an average or slightly below-average shooter from three-point range in order to keep opposing defenses honest. If he can do that, then Okoro can be the connective piece on both ends of the floor for the Cavaliers next season. He'll be able to lock down the best opposing perimeter threat all while chipping in 10 to 12 points on a night-to-night basis.

Again, Cleveland doesn't need for the starting small forward to have a massive offensive impact, they need more from him on the defensive side of the ball. As long Okoro doesn't remain a liability from beyond the arc, he fits the bill nicely for the Cavaliers. Clearly, expectations are now heightened and Okoro is one of the biggest variables in Cleveland becoming a serious force in the Eastern Conference right away. Thankfully, all signs with Okoro point to it becoming a realistic possibility. If that's the case, the Cavaliers might be back from the second LeBron James exodus much sooner than expected.

Featured image credit: Jason Miller/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 evan@downeuclid.com. Did you enjoy this edition of Right Down Euclid? You can get it in your inbox two to three times a week by subscribing here. All it takes is either your Facebook account or email address!


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