This past season, the Cleveland Cavaliers earned a playoff seed for the first time without LeBron James since his draft night in 2003.
In the 2021-22 season, Cleveland went into the Play-In Tournament as the eighth seed, losing to the Atlanta Hawks in a heartbreaking contest. With Darius Garland’s breakout season concluded, Cleveland President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman did not hesitate to make a big splash that offseason, trading for proven All-Star Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Immediately, Mitchell impacted the Cavaliers as an emphatic backcourt partner with Garland.
Though the Cavaliers lost in five games to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, the 2022-23 season was a step forward in Cleveland’s development. There were holes to fill and mistakes to correct, but the progress was undeniable. Going from 41 wins to joining the 50-win club after one year is no easy feat. With a nucleus of young talent, the Cavaliers were a blossoming group with high aspirations they just could not meet yet.
Two of the Cavs’ most glaring flaws were their sluggish pacing in the halfcourt and their inconsistent long-range shooting, and the Knicks exploited these heavily in their series. They ended the regular season twelfth in 3-point percentage and dead last in pace. While they had the best defensive rating in the Association, their eighth-best offensive rating dropped to the worst of all sixteen squads in the playoffs.
Following their playoff exit, Cleveland opened free agency with a focus on outside shooting and forward depth. They had a flurry of signings, most notably Max Strus of the Miami Heat and Georges Niang of the Philadelphia 76ers. Niang, Mitchell’s former Jazz teammate, joined the Cavs after a season with a 40.3 percent 3-point percentage. Strus’ road to the NBA was shaky, but after his recent starting role on the Eastern Conference Champions Miami Heat, he has secured himself a sizeable role in Cleveland’s starting five.
Even though the Cavaliers’ additions have the potential to take the team to another level of contention, it is in the hands of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to integrate these players into the gameplan and maximize their strengths. In a recent Q&A with NBA.com, Bickerstaff seems to realize the work ahead and is prepared.
On the subject of the playoffs, Bickerstaff seems unphased by the loss, recognizing the lessons it can bring to the young roster. He hopes to see the team realize that those moments in the playoffs are what coaches preach. Their failures only bring the small things that they ignored in the regular season into the frame. The loss will, hopefully, encourage the Cavaliers for the next bout of springtime basketball.
Now, he is focused on addressing the lack of movement the Cavaliers displayed last season and earned him a hefty amount of flack among the Cleveland faithful.
"I think by adding a guy like Max, adding Georges, they can move and create movement and make shots off movement. Now people are chasing them, and you still have your opportunity to play your pick-and-roll with Darius [Garland] and Donovan and Evan [Mobley] and Jarrett [Allen].– J.B. Bickerstaff"
According to NBA.com, the Cavs had the second-best efficient field goal percentage for the pick-and-roll ball handler. Adding more versatility to their bread-and-butter offensive approach is sure to improve the Cavaliers in their halfcourt offense, but complacency to grow repetitive in this plan could hurt the team in the long run. Over the summer, Koby Altman addressed the need for offensive diversity, mentioning Evan Mobley as a potential offensive hub next season.
The additions of Strus and Niang are not without their own possible drawbacks, as neither player touts the defensive track record of a lockdown guy. Last season, Isaac Okoro assumed the starting small forward job for the majority of the year due to his unwavering defense and athletic hustle. Strus, while he manages on defense, is far from the level of Okoro.
For a team centered around their defense, adding Strus and Niang will likely not keep the team at the top of the defensive rankings by the end of game 82. Bickerstaff realizes this, as well, but has the goal of sacrificing some defensive strength to end the year as both a top-five defense and a top-five offense.
Bickerstaff continued in the interview by complimenting Evan Mobley’s development, the unselfish nature of Caris LeVert (who this summer re-signed to a 2-year, $32 million contract to remain on the Cavaliers), and commenting on how the team will approach the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.
No matter how much the Cavaliers can recognize their faults and publicly address them, actions speak louder than words. Bickerstaff’s position as head coach could be in jeopardy if the team still fails to make a real impact in the postseason, especially following a summer filled with coaches losing their jobs. This is Bickerstaff’s year to prove it, and should he lead the Cavs to greater success, he could likely earn a long-term spot in the Land.
With the wealth of shooting talent surrounding Cleveland’s stars, all eyes will be on Bickerstaff as the season inches closer.