On the other end of the weekend, the annual Cleveland sports confluence begins – with the Wine & Gold tipping off one of the most eagerly-anticipated Training Camps in team history, joining the first-place Browns and Guardians, already embroiled their current campaigns.
Fans were already geeked for the upcoming season – one year after the Cavaliers took the NBA by storm with a 23-game improvement – and that was before Koby Altman swung for the fences in a deal to acquire three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell earlier this month.
J.B. Bickerstaff’s young squad heads into a season in which the Eastern Conference is as loaded as it has been in a generation. But the new-look Cavaliers – outfitted with updated colors, logos and threads – are brimming with confidence, boasting a starting lineup with three All-Stars, none of which are named Evan Mobley.
Once the Wine & Gold wrap up their perennial Media Day duties on Monday afternoon, Training Camp begins in earnest later that evening and on through their preseason opener on October 5 in Philadelphia. As we gear up for that date – and the season opener in Toronto exactly two weeks later – here’s a Camp Primer to get you ready for action.
In the previous era of Cavaliers basketball, the one position that was never in doubt was the small forward spot. Heading into this year, it’s the only starting spot that’s actually in question.
It’s not as if the Wine & Gold don’t have qualified candidates. The opposite, in fact, is true. J.B. Bickerstaff has plenty of options at the 3 – and once Camp opens it’ll be an open battle. Each of those candidates – ranging from Isaac Okoro to Cedi Osman to Dean Wade and beyond – brings something unique to the table, and the Cavaliers could almost go small forward by committee.
Third-year man Isaac Okoro might have the inside track. The 5th overall pick by Cleveland in 2020, Okoro struggled offensively at times during his sophomore season before finding his rhythm late – shooting 44 percent from deep after the All-Star Break, 51 percent from the floor overall.
After last season wrapped up, Koby Altman said, “We want to ‘unlock’ (Isaac) more on the offensive end. There’s so much more he can do. Last year, towards the end of the season, we saw his offensive evolution. We put the ball in his hands more. So, it’s on us to unlock his offensive ability. But you saw tremendous growth out of him. The shooting piece obviously evolved, and obviously we know what he brings to the table from a defensive standpoint.”
If you had told Cavalier fans in late August that the team was heading into the regular season as currently constructed, no one would have complained. One month later, there still aren’t any complaints – with the Wine & Gold jumping in the deep end and dealing for one of the league’s most explosive players, Donovan Mitchell.
The 26-year-old Mitchell, who’s never missed the postseason through his first five years in the league, comes to Cleveland with a career scoring mark of 23.9ppg – shooting 44 percent from the floor, 36 percent from deep and 83 percent from the stripe. His career assist mark is 4.3apg, but that number’s grown each year, averaging a career-best 5.3 in 2021-22.
The 6-1, 215-pound combo guard came to town knowing how to curry favor with the locals – sending out a good luck tweet to Ohio State before their matchup with Notre Dame and joining Darius Garland as honorary captains for the Cleveland-Pittsburgh game on Thursday night. He even smashed the Steelers guitar.
Mitchell – who’s been even better in the Playoffs over his career, averaging 28.3ppg in 39 postseason contests with Utah – gives the Wine & Gold one of the most dynamic backcourts in the Association, and neither has even hit their prime.
Donovan Mitchell will be the highest profile veteran newcomer at this year’s Camp, but he won’t be the only one.
Ricky Rubio makes his welcome return to Cleveland – signing as a free agent after being dealt to Indiana at last year’s Deadline.
The 12-year veteran helped take Darius Garland’s game to a new level, re-energized the career of Kevin Love and went 18-8 in his 26 games as a reserve. In the final 14 contests before the game in New Orleans that proved to be his last, the Cavaliers were 11-3, beating teams by an average of 22.4 points per.
Rubio will miss the first part of the season while he continues to mend that left ACL, so the Cavs inked some insurance in Rubio’s former teammate in Utah, seven-year veteran Raul Neto.
Neto, who spent the last two seasons in D.C., averaged a career-high 3.1 assists despite logging just under 20 minutes a night in 2021-22. The previous season, the 30-year-old native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil averaged a career-high 1.14 steals per. He’s appeared in at least 54 contests in each of the last three years and has 27 games of postseason experience.
This offseason, the Cavaliers lost one seven-footer – with Lauri Markkanen part of the blockbuster deal with Utah – but got one back in the free agent signing of Robin Lopez.
Now, nobody is comparing Lauri Markkanen to the 7-0, 275-pound Lopez. But the 14-year veteran from Stanford will allow J.B. Bickerstaff to still toy with a jumbo frontline on occasion. And Cleveland learned from last year’s homestretch of the regular season. Losing Jarrett Allen and Even Mobley to injuries might have cost the Cavs a Playoff spot.
After watching rookie Evan Mobley exceed all expectations as one of the futures faces of the franchise, who can blame the Wine & Gold from taking the opportunity to snag his older brother in the second round of this year’s Draft?
Cleveland dealt their top pick from this past June – Ochai Agbaji, taken with the 14th overall pick out of Kansas – in the Donovan Mitchell deal, while Khalifa Diop (No. 39) and Luke Travers (56) will continue to develop overseas.
The Cavaliers jumped back into the Second Round this year, making a Draft night deal with Sacramento to acquire the elder Mobley, who started all 32 games for USC last year, averaging team-highs in points (14.2ppg) and rebounds (8.3rpg) and was named First Team All-Pac 12 at season’s end.
The 6-10, 240-pound Mobley is more talkative than his pensive younger brother, and his game is different as well. He’s more of a banger and, despite struggling during this year’s Summer League session, can shoot from long-range.
During his solid week of work this summer in Las Vegas, Mobley led Cleveland in rebounding in three of their five games, blocked a pair of shots in back-to-back contests and averaged an impressive 3.0 assists per.
RE-SET FOR CARIS
One Cavalier who’s probably looking forward to Camp more than most others might be Caris LeVert, who never quite found his rhythm with Cleveland after being acquired in a midseason deal with Indiana.
Cleveland was sitting just a single game out of the East’s top spot when the made the trade, and the Columbus native looked like a perfect fit at the wing, averaging 18.7 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 39 starts with the Pacers.
LeVert got off to a good start – including a 22-point outing in a comeback win over Indy in just his second game – but a right foot sprain in a practice after All-Star Weekend sidelined him until March and he never got back in gear, averaging 13.7 points per over his final 15 games.
This year, the sixth-year man from Michigan comes to Camp healthy and as part of the team’s blueprint for the future.
BATTLE FOR MINUTES
This year, the Cavaliers go into the season with four definite starters as part of their dynamic young core – Donovan Mitchell (26 years old), Jarrett Allen (24), Darius Garland (22) and Evan Mobley (21). They plan on having solid veteran backups off the bench in Kevin Love (34), Ricky Rubio (31), Raul Neto (30) and Robin Lopez (34).
Somewhere in the middle of this group is a sub-group of guys – including Cedi Osman (27), Lamar Stevens (25), Dean Wade (25) and Dylan Windler (26) – who’ll be battling for minutes for most of the season, and certainly over the next couple weeks in Camp.
Cedi – now the second-longest tenured Cavalier behind Kevin Love – was solid last season, appearing in 66 games and starting in only three. He seemed more comfortable in his role, and the addition of Ricky Rubio brought out the best in him. Osman finished with 35 games in double-figures last year, nine of 20-plus. In one of his three starts last year, Cedi handed out a career-best 12 assists in a home win over New Orleans.
The doggedly tenacious Stevens, who went un-drafted out of Penn State in 2020, is one of the team’s tough young leaders, was 9-4 in his 13 starts last year, posting a career-high 23 points in a blowout win over Utah. As the Cavs struggled to stay healthy down the stretch, Stevens notched double-figures in five of six games in late April.
A knee injury sidelined Dean Wade for the final 17 games of this past year, but the former Kansas State standout was good when he got the chance – netting double-figures in 11 of his 28 starts and getting better as the season progressed, going 43 percent from deep (21-of-49) over his last 12 starts.
Dylan Windler, the 26th overall pick out of Belmont in 2019, simply needs to stay healthy. Through no fault of his own, Windler simply hasn’t been able to get any sort of foothold in the team’s rotation, appearing sporadically through 50 games last year. Windler had some solid moments – including big shooting nights in Portland in New York, but simply hasn’t found the consistency. A full, healthy Training Camp might be just what the doctor ordered for the young swingman.