The Cleveland Cavaliers could never quite figure out the right mix last season. They had one of the league’s very best backcourts with Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley were the best defensive back-line in basketball. The problem, however, was who should fill that fifth and final spot.
Isaac Okoro got plenty of run as the starting small forward, but he is undersized for the position and he was essentially ignored by locked-in defenses focused on stopping Garland and Mitchell. Caris LeVert played hard and improved as a defender last season, but his skills fit much better on-ball and the team wisely moved him into a sixth-man role. Dean Wade wasn’t healthy, Cedi Osman wasn’t impactful, and Lamar Stevens couldn’t shoot. Lauri Markkanen was in Utah.
The problem of not having a fifth starter plagued them all season and killed them in the playoffs against the New York Knicks. The Cavs knew heading into the summer that they had to address the position. Their solution? Max Strus.
The Miami Heat wing was a streaky shooter but was unafraid to get shots up, and he proved in multiple postseason runs that he is not afraid of the moment and defends better than his pedigree when the chips are down. Understanding their need for both shooting and playoff experience, the Cavs executed a sign-and-trade to bring Strus aboard.
The vision was to start Strus at small forward, relying on his strength to let him match up with opposing forwards. On offense, his shooting gravity would open the court up for his teammates, and he could mentor Evan Mobley into a nasty dribble-handoff partner.
That lineup didn’t see the court for the first five games of the season, so the vision was delayed, but the Cavaliers finally started their full group on Friday night in Indianapolis, then again at home against the Golden State Warriors. How did it go?
It’s hard to overstate this, but that lineup was exactly what Cleveland wanted. They were stingy defensively and more comfortable on offense. In an admittedly small sample size of just 22 minutes, that group has outscored opponents by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive rating of 119.1 would have ranked second in the league last year, while their defensive rating of 100 is 10 points better than their league-leading 110.6 rating from a year ago.
Despite having just two games together, that group is already the second-most-used lineup for the Cavaliers this season, as J.B. Bickerstaff continually cycled through different groupings to survive injuries and ineffectiveness. He has shown that he wants to lean on this group.
It’s obviously still early, but if the Cavaliers have a 5-man group that they can trust, their outlook for the playoffs brightens considerably. You have to play five guys at a time in the playoffs that you trust, so the papering-over weaknesses that you can do in the aggregate in the regular season fade in the smaller sample of the postseason. The Cavs didn’t have that group last year; they may just have it this year.
That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to experiment with lineups or look at trades to upgrade the rotation. A team first needs a primary lineup, but then they need as many counterpunches as possible. What’s their best lineup that goes small and skilled around Evan Mobley? If they want to go big, is Dean Wade or Georges Niang the best option at small forward? Can someone like Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale juice the versatility?
For now, though, building chemistry and familiarity with this 5-man group makes sense. They have started off well and could get even better as they grow together. The Cavs didn’t have this last season; it could make all the difference this time around.