Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Photo: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
During the summer when NBA free agency wrapped up, and the league was laying low before training camp kicked off in late September, I wrote an article explaining why Isaac Okoro was arguably the player under the most pressure for the Cavs during the 2022-2023 season. After numerous reports of Okoro looking like one of the best players on the court while working out with multiple NBA stars this summer, expectations were high for the third-year man out of Auburn.
Here’s what I wrote in that article:
Going into his third season in his career, Okoro hasn’t shown enough improvement to prove he can be a starting NBA player on a consistent basis. With the Cavs in win-now mode, Okoro will be seen as a trade candidate if the Cavs feel he isn’t improving, and they can upgrade the team. Being on a rookie deal and being a former Top 5 draft pick also makes the 21-year-old attractive to a team that believes they could unlock his potential.
There’s many players on the Cavs who are exciting to watch, but their may not be a player on the Cavs under more pressure to start next season than No. 35.
The Cavs have played 21 games this season and sit at 13-8 on the young campaign. With about 1/4 of the way through the 2022-2023 season, Okoro has shown no sign of improvement on the offensive end. His “breakout” has not even come close to happening.
Okoro has played in all of the contests for the Wine & Golders this season. He’s averaging four points a game to go along with two rebounds and an assist. He’s averaged 19 minutes a night, so a little less than half of the minutes in an NBA game.
Even more concerning than the dismal four points a contest is his shooting percentage. He’s shooting a career-worst 38% from the field and a career-low 19% (6/32) from the 3-point line.
You could make the argument easily at this point Okoro has regressed on the offensive end from where he was at the end of last season when it looked like he was starting to gain some confidence. During the 2021-2022 season, in 67 games, the 6’5 guard shot 48% from the field, 35% from three and scored an average of 11 points a ballgame.
The Cavs have had to deal with a litany of injuries to begin the season, particularly at the small forward spot. Caris LeVert missed four games with a left ankle injury, Dean Wade missed six games with a knee injury. Lamar Stevens has missed the last few ballgames with a non-COVID-19 related illness. In their absences, Okoro did nothing of note on the offensive end.
Against the Toronto Raptors on November 28th, Okoro played 32 minutes, and he scored only two points, including shooting 1/11 from the field and 0/5 from deep. The previous night vs Detroit, the Auburn product seven points in 30 minutes, but he only attempted two field goals, hitting both. On November 25th against Milwaukee, Okoro went 3/6 from the field (1/4 from three) in 32 minutes while scoring 13 points. The 13 points tied his season-high. He put up another 13-point outing against the Heat on November 20th. That night, he shot 4/8 from the field (2/5 from deep) in 29 minutes of action.
Okoro is a defensive specialist. This year, he ranks 48th in the league with a 101.6 defensive rating. His value is taking the other team’s best perimeter scorer and neutralizing them, which he can do.
However, it’s 2022, not the 1990s. In today’s game, wing players have to be able to produce consistently offensively. If wing players cannot shoot the ball on today’s court, they’re not going to last long in the league. You could make the argument the only reason why the Cavs are sticking with Okoro for as long as they have is because he’s a Top 5 draft choice, and that has merritt, especially for somebody as young as Okoro.
It is Year 3 of Okoro’s young career, and he has a lot of basketball left ahead of him. He’s barely old enough to go into a bar without having to use a fake ID!
However, when players like Stevens and Dean Wade, who are both undrafted, are producing more points a game (seven points apiece), shooting significantly better (Wade is shooting 46% from the field and 43% from three, and Stevens is shooting 48% from the field and 42% from three), and they both can hold their own on defense (Wade is 17th in defensive rating with a 102 and Stevens has a 111.2 rating but because he’s only played nine games, he’s not eligible to be on the rankings list), it makes Okoro expendable in my opinion.
With the addition of Donovan Mitchell acquisition this offseason, the Wine and Golders are in win-now mode. Even with their slow-ish start, the Cavs are in prime position to be the first team in the Dan Gilbert era to make the postseason without LeBron James on its roster, but as it stands right now, the team is not complete.
Off the bench, they are missing a scorer, somebody who outside of Kevin Love can consistently put the ball in the basket. Ricky Rubio should help tremendously when he returns from his ACL injury he suffered last December, but the Cavs need that scorer from the wing spot.
Could it be Wade or Stevens?
Potentially, but at this point in his career, and where the Cavs want to go as a basketball team, I don’t think it’s Okoro. I think it’s plausible President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman moves on at the trade deadline in February for a proven scorer and defender. A Robert Covington, Jae Crowder like player would be ideal. Somebody who plays a similar style to Okoro, but somebody who’s a veteran with plenty of playoff experience who can make key shots in big moments and play well on the defensive end.
Altman could certainly receive value for Okoro. Teams like to take chances on former first-round selections who did not work out with the club they were drafted by. They think a change of scenery is all that is necessary to unlock the player’s true potential. Sometimes it’s worked out for clubs and players, and other times it has not.
It’s possible Altman could swap Okoro for a Crowder-like player or a first-round draft choice in 2023, something the Cavs gave up for Mitchell in September. When Altman deals, he likes to prioritize the now and the future. He’s worked his magic multiple times since taking over as the man who puts the roster together after David Griffin – the architect of the Cavs 2016 championship team – was let go at the end of the 2017 season.
When the Cavs began their rebuild when James bolted for Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, the Cavs spent resources in the draft. They selected Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Okoro and Mobley in four consecutive drafts to be the “Core Four” in their rebuild.
Sexton is no longer a member of the organization thanks to the Mitchell deal, and if Okoro does not pick up his game offensively, he may be in a Cav uniform for much longer either.