Luckily for JB Bickerstaff this year, continuity should make his lineup decisions easier.
There’s no experimenting who the fifth starter will be – whether it was year one in going big or last year in cycling through Caris LeVert, Dean Wade, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman and even Dylan Windler.
Max Strus was acquired to be the guy and is being paid like a starter. LeVert was retained and is being paid like a super sixth man, a role that he seemingly settled into during the second half of last season.
How Bickerstaff would juggle Ricky Rubio, balancing respect to Rubio’s accomplishments and veteran presence with the subtle signs of age and injuries catching up to him, would have been something to watch. Now, it’s uncertain if Rubio will don a Cavalier jersey again.
With the starters being settled, even the reserves to a certain extent can be penciled in. LeVert, newly acquired Georges Niang, and Okoro figure to be the top three off the bench. After that, it will likely be a night-by-night rotation dictated by injuries, game flow and matchups.
What should fans expect?
Averaging out their minutes as a Cavalier under Bickerstaff, you get the following for the returning players:
Garland at 35 minutes per game.
Mitchell at 36 minutes per game.
Mobley at 34 minutes per game.
Allen at 32 minutes per game.
LeVert at 30 minutes per game.
That would leave 73 minutes for the rest of the rotation.
Okoro has played an average of 28 minutes per game under Bickerstaff, but the first two years of his tenure compared to last (31 minutes per game vs 21.7 per game) show the stark contrast in the Cavs developmental curve. For now, we’ll pencil in Okoro closer to his average last year at 20 minutes per game.
That leaves 53 minutes.
Using Kevin Love as a template for how Bickerstaff will likely use Niang, that puts him at 22 minutes per game. Coincidentally, the last three years Niang has averaged 19 minutes per game, so it’s well in line with previous usage.
That leaves 31 minutes.
Strus was at 28 minutes per game last year with the Heat and averaged 31.6 minutes as a starter. So, the shoe fits.
Historically, Bickerstaff has tended to ride his fifth starter. Depending on who you identify as the fifth starter in 2021-2022, both Lauri Markkanen and Okoro averaged 30+ minutes as a starter. Last year, LeVert saw 34.3 minutes per game as a starter, Okoro was at 24.8 and even Dean Wade was at 28.4 minutes in his short stint as a starter. So long story, short: Bickerstaff likes to play his five starters, and one should expect Strus to likely play 30 minutes per game.
With that, not much wiggle room is left.
But, there still are moving parts.
How will the ball-handling duties be handled?
Sans Rubio, Mitchell, Garland, and LeVert figure to share the duties with one of Mitchell or Garland always being on the court. Going by two-man data last year, while the Mitchell and LeVert pairing had a +5.9 net rating, the Garland and LeVert duo sported a +7.9 net rating.
Ty Jerome will likely be first up should there be injuries, foul trouble or Bickerstaff simply wants a change of pace a la Raul Neto last year. However, LeVert, Garland, and Mitchell figure to take up most, if not all, of the backcourt minutes.
Which leads to… who will be the first wing off the bench?
Expanding lineup data to the likely first wing off the bench in Okoro, the Garland, LeVert, Okoro trio posted a +8.7 net rating last year while Mitchell, LeVert, and Okoro put up a -4.9 net rating and a paltry 103 offensive rating. Moral of the story: If Bickerstaff plans to give Okoro the first opportunity for first wing off the bench, pair him with Garland on the second unit. Those two have had significantly positive two-man ratings in their tenure and continue to be a strong pairing.
If Bickerstaff wants to give Wade a try, the LeVert, Mitchell, and Wade trio posted a +7.6 net rating in 235 minutes last year. The Garland, LeVert, Wade trio didn’t get as much run in 137 minutes but still posted a +8.6 net rating.
So, if Bickerstaff chooses to go with LeVert and Mitchell on the second unit, Wade is the best choice – likely because of his shooting and off-ball abilities. Whereas if Bickerstaff chooses to go with Garland and LeVert off the bench, either Wade or Okoro could be used interchangeably.
It will be interesting to track Jerome’s numbers with LeVert and one of Mitchell/Garland, as the balance of ball-handling could either be too much or lead to magic (Rubio, Mitchell and Garland only shared the court for 19 minutes but had a +32.8 net rating).
So where does that leave the bigs?
Like how the backcourt will likely be handled, Allen, Mobley, and Niang project to handle 88 of the 96 minutes up front. Now with the previously discussed minute projections, it didn’t account for positional fits within the rotation and focused on past seasons minutes averages. But when looking deeper at the projected minutes, you there’s a potential role to be carved out for a fourth big to get some run.
Wade could fill that spot, which means Mobley and Allen would be your full-time center. Going back the last two years, Wade was a +11.4 with Allen, and +8.4 with Mobley last year. The year before, he was a +2.3 with Mobley and a +2.1 with Allen. So positive all the way around.
However, the early sleeper for the 9th rotational spot is Damion Jones. Here’s why.
Looking at the bigs minutes, you have 8 unaccounted for minutes. Additionally, if you shave a few minutes off of Allen and Mobley’s time on the floor or cut back some on Okoro’s and/or LeVert’s, or play Niang some at the three (which we know Bickerstaff is going to try), then you legitimately can make a good 10-15 minute spot for a 9th man.
Where Jones comes in is center relief.
It was apparent during the playoffs that tasking Allen and Mobley alternating at center for 48 minutes was too much of an ask. The Knicks had the right idea in utilizing a backup center to keep their bigs fresh. Along the same lines, Allen has consistently seemed to be a better player when kept around 28-32 minutes per game as opposed to being pushed to 34+ minutes per game.
Jones had an intriguing short stint in Utah to end the season that saw him hit 10-14 from three in 19 games while having some productive minutes otherwise. Jones also spent some time in Sacramento with current Cavs assistant coach Luke Walton before he was fired.
If the Cavs are looking to keep their bigs fresh, provide some energy with the second unit and eat up some fouls, there’s no reason Jones can’t do that in short spurts. With where the rotation stands, James has the opportunity to capture the 9th spot in the rotation.
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