CLEVELAND — After Donovan Mitchell’s introductory press conference, Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff was privately asked the question on most fans’ minds.
“Who’s the 3?”
“Nice try,” Bickerstaff responded with a smile.
Three-time All-Star guard Mitchell, acquired in a stunning Sept. 1 trade with the Utah Jazz, will occupy the backcourt with first-time All-Star Darius Garland. Two 7-footers (minus an inch), All-Star center Jarrett Allen and center/forward Evan Mobley, the 2022 Rookie of the Year runner-up, will protect the rim.
But who will be the starting small forward?
Third-year guard-forward Isaac Okoro, has 6-foot-5 defensive standout and jack of all trades whose 3-point shooting is a work in progress?
Caris LeVert, has 6-6 guard from Columbus acquired in a February trade with the Indiana Pacers who played only 19 games with the Cavs due to injuries?
“We’ll see. We’ve got options,” Bickerstaff said Wednesday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. “We’ve got a lot of things we’ve been thinking about. What we have to do is get everybody on the floor. That’s the difficult part. On paper we can make a bunch of different decisions, but until we get ’em on the floor and let ’em work together, that’s how they’ll work themselves out.”
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Bickerstaff and his assistants thought they had a handle on the 2022-23 season, which opens at Toronto on Oct. 19. For the second consecutive summer, they went to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania and hammered out their plans.
In a matter of a few days, all that was shot down by the Mitchell trade.
“Completely blown to smithereens,” Bickerstaff agreed, laughing. “But you adjust.
“It was kind of a curveball when it happened. We had had our coaches retreat and put a plan in place, so we had to make some changes. But we’ll make it work.”
Another question is how the Cavs will continue to cope with a small backcourt as both Mitchell and Garland stand 6-1. It didn’t seem to work with Collin Sexton, also 6-1, sent to the Jazz in the deal along with guard Ochai Agbaji, forward Lauri Markkanen, three protected first-round picks and two pick swaps.
“I don’t think it was a Darius-Collin thing,” Bickerstaff said. “The way we’re going to be able to protect them with Jarrett and Evan makes a huge difference. It’s up to our staff to put together a scheme that can protect those guys. And they have to take steps as well. They proved last year they’re committed to the defensive end and they’re willing to get better at it. As long as we can protect ’em, the offense — they keep track of it on the scoreboard for a reason — we have to make sure we go out and do that.”
Losing Markkanen would seemingly spell the end of tall ball. Last season the Cavs used a lineup of three big men — Allen, Mobley and Markkanen — that flummoxed foes and helped the Cavs rise to the fifth-ranked defense in the league.
“No, we won’t go to small ball. We’ve still got two 7-footers back there,” Bickerstaff said of Allen and Mobley. “The way we’ve built our defense is they protect one another.
“We don’t have to lose that identity. We’ve got two of the best rim and paint protectors in the league, so we’ll make sure they’re on the floor and then the guys around them have to protect them.”
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Although it would fly in the face of minimizing five-time All-Star forward Kevin Love’s minutes after he turned 34 on Sept. 7, Love could be used occasionally with the two bigs and the two guards.
“Some people have mentioned that,” Bickerstaff said.
When it was suggested that would be quite a collection of talent on the court, he said, “Right. We’ve kicked a lot around.”
Could Mobley, fluid and mobile for a man his size, eventually get a few minutes on the wing?
“We’ll do a lot of experimenting,” Bickerstaff said.
Mitchell is excited to play with Allen and Mobley after spending the past five seasons with center Rudy Gobert, a six-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in July.
“The more the merrier, right?” Mitchell said of the Cavs’ big men. “JA, Ev, they’ve gotten my shot a few times. Rudy’s one of the best bigs in the league on the defensive end. Ev, who’s a phenomenal 21-year-old kid who made a play for Rookie of the Year, his offensive game is unique, but his defensive game, his instincts, it’s up there.
“And then you have JA, who blocks everything, runs the floor — like, sprints the floor — and keeps up with DG, which is impressive, being able to switch, able to guard the perimeter, able to protect the paint. I’m excited to play with both of those guys. They’ve got a lot of talent in the frontcourt, and I think that’s something that I’m truly excited about.”
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Bickerstaff said the principles the Cavs want to adhere to haven’t changed, despite the plans being blown to smithereens.
“We live our lives every single day by trying to do two things — we want to be the most competitive team and the most selfless team,” Bickerstaff said. “[Mitchell] will fit right away with that.
“As a coaching staff, we have all these grand ideas, and it just goes to another level when you think about the dynamic offense that we can put on the floor and the threats that we have on the floor.”
Bickerstaff looked into the seats, where Garland and LeVert sat in the front row. Mitchell was beside Bickerstaff on the stage.
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“You think about these three guys that are sitting here in front of us and if you’re an opposing coach, what decision are you going to make?” Bickerstaff said. “Who are you going to stay home on? Who are you going to leave? And then you throw in Kevin Love poppin’ on the perimeter, JA and Evan rolling or now they get the ball in the pocket. These guys can present some problems for people.
“But it’s going to start about us being unselfish. I told Donovan and I’ve told Darius and Caris this as well. ‘You gotta be the best version of yourself. Don’t come in on your heels trying to figure it out. We want all of you guys to be aggressive with the mindset that we’re going to share the game and then make defenses have to make tough decisions.’”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.