INDEPENDENCE — After the first practice of training camp, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff might as well have named who isn’t in the running for the small forward spot.
His list is long, and he said there is no frontrunner for the job.
Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert, Cedi Osman, Dean Wade, Lamar Stevens and Dylan Windler are “all in the mix,” Bickerstaff said.
The job was thrown open when last season’s starter, Lauri Markkanen, was among those traded in the Sept. 1 deal with the Utah Jazz for three-time All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. Bickerstaff hopes he will have a good idea on the decision by Oct. 14, but will experiment when the four-game preseason schedule opens Oct. 5 at Philadelphia.
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“We may throw some wild lineups out on the floor because that’s what we like to do,” Bickerstaff said Tuesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “And then we’ll get a good gauge of that once we get some tape and some film and go from there.”
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The regular-season opener is set for Oct. 19 at the Toronto Raptors, with the home opener Oct. 23 against the Washington Wizards.
Okoro (6-foot-5 and 225 pounds) has been considered the favorite of outsiders because of how he’s handled the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best player for the past two seasons. But his offense has been slow to develop, although he shot .442 from long range after the 2022 All-Star break.
LeVert (6-6, 205), a Columbus native acquired from the Indiana Pacers in February, struggled to find his rhythm as injuries limited him to 19 games (10 starts) with the Cavs. He averaged 13.6 points in 29.8 minutes.
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Osman (6-7, 230) has been wildly inconsistent. He was inactive for six games in December and January and did not play in four games in March. But his .559 shooting percentage on 2-pointers was the second-best of his career and his .357 on 3s was his third-best.
Wade (6-9, 219) just received a three-year, $18.5 million contract extension that will keep him in Cleveland through 2025-26. Undrafted after starting four years at Kansas State, he’s been on a steady rise since signing a two-way contract in the summer of 2019. Bickerstaff lauded Wade Tuesday for his skills as a perimeter defender.
Stevens (6-8, 225) was the inspiration for the Cavs’ Junkyard Dog chain awarded after victories. Finishing as Penn State’s second-leading career scorer, Stevens took the same route as Wade, with Stevens signing a two-way contract with the Cavs in November, 2020.
The wild card in the equation is Windler (6-6, 199) who has been plagued by injuries since he was drafted 26th overall in 2019. Last season Windler appeared in 50 games, averaging 2.2 points and shooting .378 from the field and .300 on 3s in 9.2 minutes.
Bickerstaff said Windler has been “phenomenal” since he returned to Cleveland after Labor Day.
“You watch the work he’s put in, but you watch the guys that play pickup. And he’s brought himself and his game to another level,” Bickerstaff said.
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Bickerstaff said giving so many players a shot at the job should benefit the team.
“That competition is going to push everybody else to be better,” Bickerstaff said. “I know, obviously, we have certain guys who have just earned it, but they’re competing, too. And they’re being pushed and they’re pushing each other. So it’s going to raise the whole level of the team.
“Imagine what your practices are like, but now you’re moving into games, and everybody’s taking a step up, but everybody’s going to have an opportunity to earn it.”
Bickerstaff said he and his staff must decide whether they want their most talented player at the 3 spot or more of “a spacer, a ball mover.” The former might favor LeVert, the latter Okoro, whose contributions don’t always show on the stat sheet.
“It’s interesting because, there’s two schools of thought … and you want to see what works best,” Bickerstaff said. “There is put your best and most talented players on the floor. Allow that talent, especially with our group, what I really believe is they have the ability to make shots, they have the ability to spread the floor, and keep people honest.
“And then there is the less usage route of a guy who is a spacer, a ball mover, those types of things, because there are so many guys who can handle the ball and make plays. We’ve gone back and forth on that, I’ll be honest with you guys, but we’re going give it an opportunity and see exactly what works best and what is the most troublesome for defenses.”
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Mitchell agrees with the premise and the ramifications of the open tryout.
“I think that brings the best out of guys. I think that’s only going to make us better,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think it’s going to look at it in a negative way. I think guys are going to approach it the right way. Whoever it may be, you’ve got to earn it and you’ve got to work for it.
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“That’s ultimately not only going to help the guys trying out for the 3 spot, but also everybody around the team because the intensity’s going to be high, every possession is going to matter, every practice, every situation, little details. You’re doing that now, that’s going to pay dividends down the line.
“Ultimately, we have depth in that way as well. It’s going to be exciting and it’s good to watch and it’s going to bring the best out of everybody.”
Bickerstaff mentioned depth when discussing what he was looking for from his starting small forward.
“We’re looking for who fits the best. What we try to do is put together the best five-man units that we possibly can,” he said. “It’s not something where we’re going to rotate it or anything like that. It’s something that we want to put together so guys have an understanding of who they are and where they fit and when their minutes are going to come.
“Whoever can help that group be the best on both ends of the floor, that’s the group that we’ll put in. And then that doesn’t always mean that’s the group that you finish games with. I think there can be two separate groups here.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert among Cavs competing for small forward spot