Although the Cleveland Cavaliers had half a dozen players competing for the starting three spot last season, the small forward position remained their biggest weakness throughout the year.
With a painful playoff loss in the rearview mirror, the Cavaliers wasted no time addressing this issue, signing two forwards in Max Strus and Georges Niang to the team. In the postseason, the Cavaliers shot a poor 32.7 percent on 3-point attempts. This offseason’s needs were clear: wing depth and shooting. Both Strus and Niang have a track record of long range excellence and playoff experience, seemingly answering those questions.
Last season, Max Strus played a pivotal starting role for the Eastern Conference Champions Miami Heat squad, starting in all 23 postseasons matchups alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Niang most recently played for the Philadelphia 76ers where he shot 40.1 percent from deep over the course of the regular season.
Throughout his four year career, Strus has improved as a 3-point shooter and contributor on competitive rosters. Although his numbers dropped slightly in the playoffs this year, he nevertheless showed a determination every night out, something the Cavaliers will appreciate.
Since joining the Association as an undrafted prospect, Strus has continually improved as a positive producer for his team. This offseason, the Cavaliers acquired Strus via sign-and-trade with the Heat, bringing Strus to Cleveland for the next four years to help their young core contend.
Strus joins Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade as the Cavaliers’ primary options at small forward. Each player offers a varied skillset from the other, begging the question as to who will earn the starting role on opening night.
In the most recent edition of “Hey, Chris!”, Chris Fedor addressed the elephant in the Cavaliers locker room. Last season, Caris LeVert was Cleveland’s starting small forward on opening night, but Isaac Okoro eventually assumed the role for the majority of the year.
With the addition of Strus, there was an assumed competition in training camp for the starting spot, but the Cavaliers might already have their choice in mind.
"The Cavs believe Strus is an ideal fit and are excited to see what it will look like with three legitimate shooting threats around Allen and Mobley… Bottom line: Strus was signed to start-Chris Fedor, cleveland.com"
Entering training camp, Strus appears to be slotted into the starting rotation, which may have been expected given his $64 million contract and recent playoff performance. The 27-year-old wing gives head coach J.B. Bickerstaff a unique skillset on the wing that Cleveland has not given him yet, and as Fedor mentioned, it would be a “massive upset” if Bickerstaff went in another direction.
Over last season, Okoro earned the starting role through his unwavering defensive mindset and work ethic. His offense slightly improved but rarely moved the needle for the Cavs. Though he started, his overall usage and minutes played went down from a year before. In 2021-22, Okoro averaged 29.6 minutes and 6.4 shot attempts per game, as compared to last year’s 21.7 minutes and 4.7 shot attempts.
For as many positives Okoro has on defense, the Cavaliers clearly relegated him to a minimized role and perhaps planned to move him to the bench already. By the end of their short playoff stint, Caris LeVert once again usurped the starting spot from Okoro. The sudden change showed a lack of trust in Okoro from the Cavs, and any talented wing the Cavaliers signed this summer was likely to take the starting role. With Strus, Okoro’s role in Cleveland is likely to change again.
Fedor also noted that Strus was the Cavaliers’ top free agent target this summer, further cementing the team’s plans to put him in the starting five. Cleveland is keen on Strus’ ability to diversify their offensive approach as a motion shooter and athletic slasher. A stagnated offense severely hurt the Cavs in the playoffs, and GM Koby Altman clearly wanted to resolve this by giving Bickerstaff a dynamic option like Strus.
As much as Strus will provide on offense, he is undeniably a worse defender than Isaac Okoro. Okoro has repeatedly been Cleveland’s best perimeter defender. LeVert has also shown strength in this area as well and has an argument as a better defensive option than Strus.
The defensive effort led by Mobley, Allen and Okoro netted the Cavaliers the league’s top defense over the regular season. And, for as poor as their playoffs went, their defense held up fairly well and forced the Knicks into numerous inefficient performances. For Strus to fit in Cleveland, he will have to commit wholeheartedly to that end of the court every possession.
Fans have pointed out that at 6-foot 5-inches Strus is below average height for a small forward and will worsen Cleveland’s struggles against tall teams. With two 6-foot-1-inch guards in the backcourt, an undersized forward could spell trouble. Choosing Okoro over Strus will yield the same problems, though, as Okoro is the same height as Strus. Okoro can play “bigger” than he is, but Strus has a greater defensive versatility that could suggest Strus has the same capability.
Where Okoro shines most on defense is against the point of attack, against guards bringing up the ball. Strus, admittedly, falls short in this category. The majority of his work defensively is working within a system and playing his role rather than taking on the toughest assignment each night.
Strus is far from a poor defender, though. Where Okoro might have a greater presence as a point-of-attack defender, Strus’ defensive versatility could be a hidden element of his game that shines in the Land. His best tool on defense is his ability to defend nearly anybody on the court competently.
Last season, Max Strus played 57 percent of his minutes on the court as a small forward. Defensively, Strus matched up against a guard 46.7 percent, a forward 45.1 percent, and a center 8.2 percent of the time, per NBA.com stat tracking. With a nearly even split between guards and forwards, the Cavaliers will not need to feel immediate concern when Strus guards taller players. He has the experience, and he holds his own.
For comparison, Okoro defended a guarded roughly 60 percent of his minutes. Okoro’s best role on defense is guarding the primary ballhandler and shutting him down. For Strus, he plays within a system and often makes the right call. He will not join Mobley on All-Defensive teams, but he can give the Cavaliers a solid rotational defender.
On certain nights, Okoro will undoubtedly see an increase in minutes as a defensive specialist. But, Strus’ impressive feat as a true 3-and-D wing will be a catalyst for the Cavaliers this season if they can integrate him into their game plan swiftly.
In truth, the Cavalier with the largest responsibility upon Strus’ arrival has been Bickerstaff. His coaching prowess will be tested this year, and with the talent at his disposal, he will be primed to be the leading force behind a terrific NBA season in Cleveland.