Cleveland Cavaliers 2022-23 Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers made an unexpected leap into the top half of the conference last season. After enduring three dismal seasons in the lottery after LeBron James’ exit in 2018, they achieved a winning record on the backs of their three best players Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen (both named All-Stars), and Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley

This wasn’t simply a case of good luck for Cleveland, either. Early injuries to Collin Sexton and the rejuvenated Ricky Rubio meant Garland was their only source of offensive creation and quality guard play for over half of the season. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff started three seven-footers with Lauri Markkanen joining Allen and Mobley in the lineup, and the decision paid off. Of course, Markkanen and Sexton were included in the trade for Donovan Mitchell. How will the shocking acquisition of Donovan Mitchell affect the outlook of the Cavs’ 2022-23 season?

Cleveland Cavaliers 2022-23 Season Preview

Cleveland Cavaliers with Donovan Mitchell

Any analysis of the Cavs absolutely must start with the Donovan Mitchell trade. It’s obvious why they made the move: Cleveland finished 19th in offense last season, and couldn’t score with the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets in their Play-In losses despite being much better defensively than both teams. Mitchell is a dynamic, playoff-tested scorer. He was incendiary against the Nuggets despite Utah losing their first-round series against Denver in the 2020 bubble. Mitchell was the best player on the court during his rookie season when the Jazz beat the Russell Westbrook and Paul George-led Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2018 playoffs.

The 26-year-old Mitchell is a perfect addition to Cleveland’s young core. Offensively, he and Garland fit exceptionally well. Part of Garland’s brilliance is that he doesn’t need to dominate the ball. He’s one of the best shooters in the NBA and has spent his entire career playing with another scoring guard in Sexton. Garland’s usage rate, the number of Cavs possession that ended with a shot, turnover, or free throws from him, was just 27.2% despite losing Sexton and Rubio to injury. That’s below stars who played with other star teammates like Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum (31.3% each), Kristaps Porziņģis (28.6%), and even non-stars like Reggie Jackson (27.3%) and Dillon Brooks (28.3%).

Mitchell isn’t quite at Garland’s extremely high level as a shooter, and he had a much higher usage rate last season, but he’s played his last three seasons alongside Mike Conley. That experience should help him understand how to remain effective when Garland has the ball.

Cleveland Cavaliers Starting Lineup

It’s safe to assume Garland, Mitchell, Allen, and Mobley will be four of the starters. Amazingly, Mobley already feels like an established piece of a top-10 team with his tremendous defense and skilled, varied offensive game. He seems primed to handle increased scoring and playmaking opportunities this season. Further development on his three-point shot could turn the Cavs’ offense from solid to truly threatening. He could also be the primary defender of wing scorers when Allen is playing and protecting the rim.

The fifth starter is an open question, and whoever starts at small forward will be limited. The likeliest candidates to start at the three are Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert, and Dean Wade

The Cavs traded for LeVert last season, but he comes with significant injury concerns. Last season he played 58 of 82 games, his first season playing over 50 games since 2017-18. He’s smaller than most starting small forwards, and he hasn’t shot over 35% from three since 2019-2020. He can create offense, but that skill overlaps with Garland and Mitchell. LeVert is probably best suited for a bench role. 

Okoro has the lottery pedigree and the best chance of developing into a true one-on-one stopper on the perimeter. Unfortunately, he hasn’t developed enough as a shooter to be respected. He shot just 2.3 attempts in his 29.6 minutes per game, making him closer to Jonas Valančiūnas than an average starting small forward as a shooter. Wade probably won’t match Okoro’s defensive impact, but he has the size to play Markkanen’s role in their scheme. He was also able to attempt 2.8 threes in just 19.2 minutes per game last season. Shooting will likely determine whether Okoro or Wade ends the season as the Cavs’ starting small forward.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ Continuity

A massive addition like Mitchell necessitates some growing pains. Developing continuity will be a challenge for Cleveland as they look to move beyond the Play-In Tournament. We mentioned above how both Mitchell and Garland have experience playing next to scoring guards. The Cavs’ best stretch of play last season came when Rubio was starting next to Garland, giving the Cavs two sources of offense. His recovery from a torn ACL suffered last December will be a major factor in Cleveland’s success this year.

A healthy Rubio is a playmaking guard who doesn’t dominate the ball and is a plus defender. That player is an archetypal third guard to play with either Garland or Mitchell. Rubio and Mitchell played together in Utah for two seasons, which should help as the Cavs try to develop chemistry during the regular season. They spent much of that time playing next to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, a two-big look Cleveland has adopted with Allen and Mobley. Mitchell’s familiarity playing with this unique team construction will be important as well.

Kevin Love looms as an elder statesman and someone who can come off the bench and play effectively with either Allen or Mobley. LeVert hasn’t played much with this group, but Mitchell’s presence means the Cavs won’t have to depend on him.

The Last Word on the Cleveland Cavaliers

This is a tremendously talented team that took a huge leap forward in a sustainable way last year. The Mitchell addition means they’ll be able to match any team in the league in raw talent. They should be able to gain significant postseason experience as early as this season.

Prediction: 4th in the East, second-round playoff exit.