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At this point one year ago, the Cavaliers still hadn’t drafted Isaac Okoro.
Near the end of the 2019-20 campaign, the NBA world was forever altered. The final 22 contests of that regular season were cancelled. And the following year – last season – squads were limited to just 72 games.
Things aren’t completely back to normal, but they’re getting closer. And on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers will tip off the 2021-22 campaign in front of a full house in Memphis – and return to a full gym on Friday night in Cleveland – commencing what promises to be an interesting season for J.B. Bickerstaff’s young guns.
With the final roster pared down this past weekend, the Wine and Gold will roll out a new look this year. Cleveland got bigger, younger and deeper over the offseason and, at least for the time being, Coach Bickerstaff – who went through 31 different starting lineups due to injuries last year – has some shiny, healthy new toys to play with.
On Wednesday night, the Cavs open the season against the Grizzlies. The Wine & Gold won their last visit to the FedEx Forum – with the aforementioned Okoro scoring the winning bucket with 10.6 to play last December. This trip, he’ll have folks in the stands barking at him for sinking their squad. And maybe he’ll think that angry fans never sounded so good.
As we ready for the 2021-22 season opener, here are a few things to keep in mind as tip-off approaches …
Only two players on the current roster have tasted the postseason as a member of the Cavaliers – Kevin Love and Cedi Osman. And Love, along with the recently signed Ed Davis, are the only two players born in the ’80s. (Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro were born in 2001.)
After Love and Cedi, the longest-tenured Cavalier is 22-year-old Collin Sexton, who’s going into his fourth year with Cleveland. That makes the Young Bull – who missed his first career game after suiting up for 155 straight last year in Memphis – one of the team’s young leaders. And he’s slowing beginning to embrace that role – addressing the squad and its need for accountability at the big team dinner before the start of Training Camp.
If the Cavaliers are going to take the next step, they’ll need a new group of leaders to step up.
Love, Davis and Osman have the experience. But none are expected to be full-time starters to begin the season. Players like Sexton, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen – all relatively quiet guys off the floor – will have to come out of their comfort zones and become the team’s vocal veterans.
Yes, the Cavaliers core – which includes Allen, Garland, Okoro, Sexton, Lauri Markkenen and Evan Mobley – is a very young group, all under the age of 24. Okoro doesn’t reach drinking age until late January. Mobley, next June.
But while Mobley, the No. 3 pick this past July, comes into the season completely green, the other five members of that young bunch have already logged a combined 893 NBA games.
Only one of those six players – Jarrett Allen, nine games over two postseasons with Brooklyn – has ever reached the Playoffs.
While Cleveland’s youngsters will have to take more of a leadership role this year, the Cavs brass made one of the offseason’s best moves – trading for veteran point guard Ricky Rubio this summer.
The day before acquiring him, playing for the Spanish national team in the Tokyo Olympics, the 10-year vet dropped 38 points on Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics – the highest point total against the Americans since they started sending pros in 1992. And in five preseason games with Cleveland, Rubio has only affirmed that he’s got plenty left in the tank.
Lauri Markkanen arrived in a difficult trade for the Cavs – sending Larry Nance Jr. to Portland in a three-way deal that landed the Finnish forward in Cleveland.
Markkanen has played both the 3 and 4 spots effectively in the preseason – in both a starting and reserve role. A career 15.6ppg scorer, he’s coming off his best season as a shooter, canning 40 percent of his long-range attempts last year with the Bulls. Through his four years in the league, Markkanen’s never made less than 109 three-pointers.
But the biggest offseason addition to the Wine and Gold is the squad’s coveted rookie big man, Evan Mobley, who’s already shown flashes of how dominant he could eventually become on both ends of the floor.
Mobley enters the Association after being named Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. He was the conference’s top rebounder (8.7rpg) and shot-blocker (3.0bpg), while averaging 16.8 points per in 33 games. In those 33 contest, Mobley swatted 95 shots.
Last season, injuries forced J.B. Bickerstaff was forced to shuffle and re-shuffle his starting lineups and rotations on a steady basis. Of his 33 different starting lineups, the longest continuous run was seven games with the starting five of Garland, Sexton, Love, Allen and Okoro.
And with guys shuffling in and out of the lineup, there were few moments of continuity and constant changes to the roster. Even the Wild Thing – Anderson Varejao – got a late run in Cleveland, playing six games after not suiting up for an NBA squad since 2017.
The silver lining from last season was the experience earned by players who might not have normally cracked the rotation – namely Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade, who could prove to be reliable vets for Cleveland moving forward.
Cleveland was relatively thin at the wing when last season wrapped up, but have had guys vying for that spot in this year’s camp. After Okoro, the Cavs can turn to Dylan Windler, Cedi Osman, Stevens or Denzel Valentine.
In the middle, the Cavaliers will go with Allen and Mobley. But they’ll also have Ed Davis, Tacko Fall and some guy named Kevin Love who’ll all be pushing for minutes once the season begins.
And in the backcourt, where last year’s veteran leader – Matthew Dellavedova – was limited to just 13 games, they’ll have Ricky Rubio as insurance as well as a savvy former starter who can hold their feet to the fire.
The pieces are in place for this young group of Cavaliers. We’ll see how they fit together starting Wednesday night.