The Cleveland Cavaliers have clawed their way back into championship contention. They reached four straight NBA Finals between 2015 and 2018, but LeBron James’ departure resulted in another horrific nosedive, and they failed to win more than 22 games in three straight seasons.
But the 2021-22 campaign was different. The Cavs had a breakout year and showed off their new cornerstone pieces, with none of them named LeBron or Kyrie Irving. Young stars Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley brought life back to Northeast Ohio, and the trio led the Cavaliers to their first winning season without James in over two decades. They lost in the NBA Play-In Tournament but still proved to have a promising future.
Now, it’s time for the Cavs to surround their stars with players who can emulate the men who came before them — those who took the team to the promised land or close to it.
It seems Cleveland had that strategy when selecting Ochai Agbaji in the 2022 NBA Draft. The franchise is reportedly hoping he can fill the role Kyle Korver played during its 2018 Finals run.
The Cavaliers reportedly want Ochai Agbaji to fill Kyle Korver’s old role
The Cavs found their 2021-22 success by going big. They started three big men in Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen. Those three (in addition to Kevin Love off the bench) fed off the play of All-Star point guard Darius Garland offensively and worked hard defensively to protect the rim at elite levels, ranking fifth in points allowed per game (105.7) and seventh in defensive rating (109.7).
However, going big sometimes resulted in the Cavaliers’ perimeter offense taking a hit. Cleveland ranked 20th in three-pointers per game last season with only 11.6.
That’s where Ochai Agbaji can help.
Agbaji, the 14th pick in the 2022 draft, not only brings his defensive intensity over from the Kansas Jayhawks. But he also developed into a solid three-point shooter.
The 6-foot-5-inch guard made 2.6 long-range attempts per game at 40.7% last season. He led the national-championship winning Jayhawks in three-point field goals and had more than twice as many as the player with the second most. His head coach Bill Self even called him a “great shooter” after the draft.
That skill from deep appears to be a reason why the Cavs selected him.
“Agbaji is not really a playmaker on the perimeter, but the Cavs loved how active he can be without the ball,” The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd wrote. “One member of the organization likened his ability to sprint into shots to the way Kyle Korver sparked the Cavs’ second unit during the last championship window. No one is comparing Agbaji to one of the NBA’s greatest 3-point shooters, but those screen actions and off-ball movements have been missing from this offense the last few years. It was a role the franchise once hoped Dylan Windler could fill, but Windler can’t stay healthy.”
Agbaji becoming a Kyle Korver-type player would help the Cavaliers tremendously. Korver was near the end of his career when he played in Cleveland, but he shot 43.6% from deep off the bench. He then made 41.3% of his long-range shots in the postseason and played a crucial role in multiple close wins. Korver scored 19 in both a three-point first-round win over the Indiana Pacers and a one-point victory over the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals.
The Cavs needed more scoring and shot-making from the perimeter in 2021-22. Perhaps having that extra boost could have gotten them through the play-in tourney. But Agbaji has a chance to improve that weakness in 2022-23. He can simply get the team one step closer to where it was in 2018.
The Cavaliers don’t have LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, but they are on the verge of title contention once again. The future is bright in Cleveland, Ohio.