Just like that, the season is over.
A promising season came to an unfortunate end during a 5-game series against the New York Knicks. Though the Cavs took an encouraging win in front of a friendly crowd at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Game 2, it wasn’t enough to push a young Cavaliers starting lineup to find the guidance they needed to ultimately take the series.
“We have to get better at the focus level,” said Cleveland Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman, via the Associated Press. “A lot of the problems in the postseason were self-inflicted.
“We have to become more mature in our focus.”
The 2022-23 Cleveland Cavaliers season was filled with its fair share of highlights: A 71-point outing from Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell against a Central Division rival in the Chicago Bulls, an 8-game win streak to kick off the season with overtime wins against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and locking their first spot in the playoffs since the team’s first year without Kyrie Irving.
Have some of Cleveland’s biggest contributors and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff lived up to their expectations following all 82 regular season games and a playoff series?
Everything, even one final piece to make a push for the playoffs, comes at a price.
Cleveland paid a hefty sum to acquire the star guard from the Utah Jazz, trading away forward Lauri Markkanen, guard Collin Sexton, guard Ochai Agbaji, three first-round picks and two pick swaps for the then 3-time All-Star out of Louisville.
Mitchell finished the season with averages of 28.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in 68 games played and started. He claimed Cleveland’s first All-Star starter selection since LeBron James was voted to the lineup in 2018, according to ESPN Cavs reporter Danny Cunningham.
He may not have played up to his abilities in every one of Cleveland’s playoff games. But, in the moments and months leading up to them, he has more than lived up to the price paid before the start of the season.
Darius Garland set a big-time goal for himself towards the beginning of the season.
“Yes, for sure,” Garland said when asked if he thought he was capable of becoming the best point guard in the league. “Like I said, I have a lot of strides to go. But I think I’m one of the top young guards in this league for sure.
“So, that’s my goal: to be one of the top guards in this league, and hopefully be the best one.”
It will take time for him to live up to the lofty expectations he placed upon himself in September. But his averages of 21.6 points and 7.8 assists per game only provide a surface-level look into how the 22-year-old has grown as the season has gone on.
Both Bickerstaff and Altman had big plans for the fourth-year guard out of Vanderbilt, and his development as a young leader for the Cavaliers was made apparent with solid scoring nights in Games 2, 4 and 5 against New York.
Just as it was at quarter-way into the season, it seems the only way from here is up for Garland.
An interior anchor for a Cavaliers defense that took the top defensive rating in the league during the regular season, Allen finished the 2022-23 campaign with 14.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 68 starts and games played.
The player Miami Heat forward Kevin Love called “your favorite player’s favorite player” finished with of defensive win shares of 0.134, good enough to put him on par with Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson.
He still has work to do if he is going to be the interior anchor needed to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to the Land, as made apparent with his matchups against Knicks forward Julius Randle and center Mitchell Robinson in the playoffs. But his performances in the regular season more than made him an impactful part of Cleveland’s defense.
No one can deny the potential Evan Mobley showed throughout the season.
The 21-year-old forward was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, taking nominee spots with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez.
He even got several Hall-of-Fame comparisons from The Athletic senior staff writer Michael Pina in March.
“Mobley’s stoic, deadpan demeanor hearkens back to Tim Duncan, while his defensive versatility and selfless attitude make him a direct descendant of Kevin Garnett,” Pena wrote in March. “‘I played with KG,’ says Cavaliers guard Ricky Rubio. ‘He had that strength and mobility. I see Chris Bosh out there, too.’”
He, along with Allen, may have been outmatched on the boards against New York, but one can only wonder how much the 21-year-old will continue to improve under the continued guidance the mainstays on this Cavs roster.
Though not a consistent contributor on the stat sheet, Okoro still showed improvement throughout the regular season. He finished with 6.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game in 76 games played and 46 starts.
He hit a Cavs game-winner against the Brooklyn Nets in March, sparking a reaction from Mitchell after he was left in disbelief.
“The trust is there because we see him work on it,” Mitchell said. “That’s why I have a lot of respect for him, especially at a young age, to continuously work on something that obviously was a glaring thing for him last year and to see him not only not lose confidence, but continue to believe in himself even more, that’s what makes this season great the way we play.”
Okoro’s improvement, along with his matchup against guard Jalen Brunson in the playoffs, made him a valuable part of Cleveland’s rotation in his third year.
Whether he plays at the shooting guard or small forward, stays on the bench or takes up a starting role, guard Caris LeVert’s 12.1 points per game has been a valued part of Cleveland’s rotations this season.
“That’s just the type of dude he is where all he wants to do is be a part of the team and help the team win and he’s been willing to do whatever it takes,” Bickerstaff said in March. “The thing that I think has been most impressive is he’s been a mainstay on all of our defensive stuff.”
Caris made the jump to the Cavs’ starting small forward during the playoffs, providing a solid scoring punch just as he had throughout the regular season. Consistency may be what he ultimately needs to work on in the offseason, but LeVert proved to be a much-needed bucket for a bench that averaged the 28th most points per game in the NBA last season.
Some lessons can’t be taught.
Jackson Stone ·
The Cavs learned one of the most important lessons of all when forward Lamar Stevens pushed his way through the Celtics’ defense in March for six offensive rebounds and spoke out during the team’s huddles.
When Lamar speaks, you listen.
“That’s something you earn,” said Donovan Mitchell, via Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor. “I’ve only been here a few months, but you can tell as a locker room, as a group of guys, we trust in him, in his voice, his leadership.
“Not only did he do it by voice, but by example. When he’s out there competing, fighting, screaming, getting buckets, and also getting stops, you’ve gotta be out there doing the same thing.”
Steven’s impact may not show up in the final stats, but his ability to embody the “Junkyard Dog” mentality the Cavs tried to instill through the team’s Junkyard Dog chain and beyond cannot be overstated.
He will need to improve to earn more minutes off the bench, but Stevens can continue to be an underrated part of Cleveland’s reserves if he keeps finding ways to lead the Cavs by example.
No, Bickerstaff didn’t change his rotational issues during the playoffs. He didn’t help address some of Cleveland’s issues during the postseason.
But Bickerstaff’s part in Cleveland’s ability to grow into a playoff-caliber franchise over the years can’t be forgotten. Cleveland grew from the 30th-ranked defensive rating in the 2019-20 to No. 1 last year, a point Altman made sure to highlight during Friday’s media session.
“J.B. has been through this rebuild from the ground up and he’s done a phenomenal job instilling a culture here of accountability and hard work,” Altman said, via Cleveland.com. “You can’t fluke your way into 51 wins and you can’t fluke your way into the No. 1 defensive rating in the NBA. That’s coaching.
“I know we have great defensive personnel, but you have to have buy-in from that and that comes from the head coach. We’re extremely happy with J.B. and the job he’s done. I think he’s going to look back and reflect on what we could have done better, just like the players look back at what they could have done better.”
Bickerstaff will have his work cut out for him next season when figuring out his rotations and how to bring the Cavs to the next level. But should he have the ability to keep Cleveland’s defense in order, he should still be a solid voice for the Cavaliers for the time being.