After exceeding expectations, Cavaliers expect a target on their back

After exceeding expectations, Cavaliers expect a target on their back

As the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare to make their NBA Summer League debut in Las Vegas, all eyes in Northeast Ohio will be squarely on Ochai Agbaji, the No. 14 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, who ultimately became a bonus selection when the wine and gold fell just one victory short of making the playoffs.

Starting Friday afternoon, Agbaji will get the lion’s share of shots, have the ball in his hands and go a little out of his comfort zone by being utilized as a playmaker — similar to what Cleveland asked of Isaac Okoro at this time last year. Knowing Agbaji’s strengths after a year-by-year ascension at Kansas, the organization is set on developing other areas of his game at Summer League and entering training camp.

In fact, a Cavaliers team source told Basketball News that the plan is to bring Agbaji along slowly at the beginning of the season. And with the guard room filled to the brim, it’ll be difficult for the rookie swingman to crack the rotation right away.

“There's really no expectations on him," the Cavs source said. "He doesn't have to play or have to contribute right away."

There will be some real battles for minutes come training camp, especially in the backcourt. Not only does Cleveland have Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, Okoro and Agbaji, the Cavs also added Raul Neto and brought back Ricky Rubio.

To top things off, the team source is quite confident that Collin Sexton will be back with Cleveland since free-agency money is drying up. Either the two sides will reach an agreement or "at worst," Sexton will sign for the qualifying offer (worth $7.2 million).

If you’re keeping count, that’s seven players who will be duking it out for floor time between two positions, most notably at the 2. The team source suggested that J.B. Bickerstaff could regularly play 10 guys this season. On a team that’s still seemingly missing a “true” small forward who can score on both ends of the floor, it seems like overkill. Yet, as the Cavs found out the hard way last season, depth is absolutely necessary to stay above water.

Despite their success with him sidelined, Sexton’s absence was painfully felt as the season progressed. The obvious way was as a scorer who “can get 15-to-20 in his sleep.” From another perspective, it was about how he got those points — getting into the paint, breaking down the defense and knocking down those 9-1-1 types of shots — that really could’ve saved an offense that ran out of gas. 

“Collin's built for big moments. He's not afraid at all, and I just think he would've made some kind of impact,” the Cavs source said. “I think he would've helped us more than hurt us. Everyone wants to say the success was because he's not here, which I think is completely false. Say what he can't do, but what can he do?

“I just think it was a tough year for him because all he cares about is hoop. That's literally 24/7, 365. I think it was really, really hard for him. But he's even more motivated because he was out and he saw the success. He's rippin' and roarin'. I've seen some of the videos of him working out and stuff; I think he's gonna be back and be better than ever this season.”

While Sexton’s knee injury was the first blow, Rubio tearing his ACL in New Orleans before the turn of the new year rattled everybody in the franchise.

“It just really hurt Cedi [Osman] and really hurt Kevin [Love] 'cause that second unit was rollin',” the team source said. "And Kevin and Cedi, Ricky just put them in spots. They didn't have to do anything. They just had to finish. But Ricky set 'em up perfectly. That was the beginning of it. It was a big blow. I just think if we have Ricky healthy all year, we're probably a four or five seed.”

(Subsequently, the team source said that Jarrett Allen’s broken thumb “just killed us.”)

Even with Rubio returning, the team source told Basketball News that his recovery timeline for the 2022-23 campaign is “unknown,” so the experienced Neto should be able to fill that void until Rubio is cleared for action. And considering that Cleveland’s options last season were two-way guard Brandon Goodwin and first-year-NBAer Kevin Pangos before attempting to patch up the roster wound with Rajon Rondo and LeVert, Neto should be able to get the job done.

Because they had such a good thing going in the short- and long-term last season, the Cavs did not want to mess with team chemistry too much. The organization viewed last year's LeVert trade as a pure addition that wouldn't affect the building’s energy. He’d take on some of the playmaking duties and the scoring responsibility with no Rubio (who was hurt and sent to Indiana as part of the deal) or Sexton (who was still rehabbing).

Off the floor, it worked out just fine, as LeVert fit right in with Cleveland’s culture. 

On the floor, it was a mixed bag.

“He comes, he plays what, four games? He has that huge game in Indiana, then we go on the break and then he's out for a month. And then he comes back and he wasn't himself,” said the team source.

LeVert even told the organization that he couldn’t get his legs under him after initially spraining his foot. LeVert also admitted to bringing some of his bad habits from Indiana to Cleveland.

“Obviously we saw the kid, the character, the work ethic, but he just wasn't on the floor, especially with most of our main guys. We were trying to figure him out, he was trying to figure us out. There just wasn't enough time,” the team source said. “Maybe if he's healthy that whole second half, I think it would've been better, but it was just hard for everyone involved just because he was learning on the fly. I think we had, like, two real practices after we traded for him. So, there was no time to really jell with the guys. He just kinda had to do it on the fly in games.”

When asked to evaluate LeVert’s half-season stretch with Cleveland, the team source described it as “incomplete.”

“I think he's gonna have a good year because he'll have had a whole summer, he's been with our guys, he's been back and forth here,” the Cavs source said. “We're gonna have a full training camp, and I know Coach [Bickerstaff] is saying we've learned a lot about him and where we can put him in different spots.”

The sole reason the Cavs stacked the guard room was to take just a semblance of the burden off Garland. Carrying the playmaking load — putting the team on his shoulders from January and on — resulted in him hurting his back. But unlike his first two injury-riddled NBA seasons, Garland showcased his durability and fought through the nagging pain to will Cleveland to a spot in the Play-In Tournament. 

For the first time in his career, Garland was an All-Star, finished as a top-20 scorer and ranked sixth in assists among his NBA peers. Last Saturday, the Cavs rewarded Garland with a five-year, $191 million rookie-maximum extension that could reach up to $231 million in earnings.

“What he did this year was pretty incredible, the growth he's made, and I think he's still only gonna get better and hopefully take a couple more steps,” the team source said of Garland. “We've been looking for kind of an All-Star, a franchise pillar since LeBron left. He wants to be here. Everyone loves playing with him. He embraces the city. There's just too many boxes to check there. I think he's only gonna get better and trying to get healthy, and just get better players around him so he doesn't have to do so much. He's still only 22 years old. I think the future's bright with him, and we're excited to have him.”

Continuing to get stronger will be a priority for Garland, as will the team’s desire to “unleash him off the ball.” We saw glimpses of that with the Rubio-Garland duo prior to the veteran’s untimely setback. After that, Garland was the table-setter, had the ball in his hands and served as the primary scorer. By having even a possession off here or there, Cleveland could preserve Garland’s wind, allowing him to run off screens to shoot or simply stand in the corner to spot up for a triple.

Finding ways to employ Garland’s off-ball skills will be one piece to the puzzle. Another is figuring out how to make Evan Mobley more selfish on the offensive end, per the team source. He’s always going to make the right play because of his natural instincts, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be aggressive. 

“I think it's just in between his ears,” the Cavs source said. “It's just a mentality. ‘I know I can score 25.’ Getting him more aggressive, his mentality changing. When he catches it, [we want him thinking], ‘Hey, I can get 25 tonight and no one can stop me.' I'm excited for him. I think he's gonna have a big jump 'cause he was playing that whole rookie year in quicksand. He's so smart and he's so skilled and he works. I'm really, really excited to see what he's gonna look like come October.”

Mobley can put the ball in the basket, as we’ve already seen. Fine-tuning his jump shot will be a point of emphasis, as will sharpening his handle and adding some muscle to withstand the physical element of the NBA game. In addition, the Cavs want Mobley to shoot more threes to ultimately help space the floor since that's been an issue when Allen and Okoro are on the floor with him.

That spacing agenda goes for everybody. Lauri Markkanen was able to shoot it at a decent clip when he was healthy, as was Love and the recently re-signed Dean Wade. Okoro had his moments, but then he experienced a shooting slump as soon as April hit. Lamar Stevens got better at the three-ball, but it’s not nearly enough to make defenses close-out. 

Osman got off to a terrific start in that department, but tailed off. Sparingly used Dylan Windler wasn’t able to establish any sort of jumper in his 50 games. With those two specifically, it’ll be interesting to see who Cleveland parts with if/when Sexton re-enters the fold, because the roster will be one man over the limit. 

It sounds like Windler’s chances to stay afloat are worse than Osman’s due to his lack of shot-making, and Cedi having his share of high moments. As for how Cleveland’s front office will execute the crunch, there could be opportunities to consolidate via a trade later this offseason. 

“We have a whole summer to figure it out,” the team source said.

(Had the Cavs found someone they wanted to use their mid-level exception on, the front office would’ve considered moving Osman or Windler to Indiana in a sign-and-trade for Rubio. However, the talent pool dried up quickly and Cleveland just decided to sign the veteran point guard outright.)

With Summer League action off and running, the Cavs are set to open their schedule in Las Vegas on Friday. It’s the first of many steps toward not only getting back to where they were, but surpassing that and becoming a consistent playoff presence.

“I think the big thing for our group is we were so close. I think we're motivated, we're hungry,” the team source said. “But when people come into Cleveland, it's not, 'Alright, we got the same old Cavs. We can kinda just dilly dally for three-and-a-half quarters and then we'll just win at the end.' No. We're gonna have a target on our back, and how do these guys respond? How are they gonna react when teams are coming in here giving their best effort where that wasn't the case the last three, four years?”

The Eastern Conference is improving and Cleveland won’t be sneaking up on anybody anymore, so it’ll be on this young group to withstand the storm headed its way and come out with more passion and fire than ever before.

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