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
“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
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
(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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
(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.