The Cleveland Cavaliers pulled out two wins and a one possession road loss despite not playing their best basketball. Donovan Mitchell is the reason this is the case.
Here’s what we learned this week.
Continuity continues to elude the Cavs.
If you look around at the top of the league you see one thing, continuity. The Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics all have that. They have high level talent and consistent lineups that have played with each for numerous seasons producing seamless chemistry and great results.
The Cavs were not been able to establish consistent lineups last season due to injuries. The core trio of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen appeared together in less than half of the Cavs’ games last season. The 2021-22 opening night starting lineup appeared in just six games all season.
Integrating Donovan Mitchell with the core trio is the most important thing for the Cavs to do this season. They need to find out if a core four of Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen can work and if it’s something worth continual investment over the next handful of seasons. It’s also important for them to play together so the Cavs can get an idea of what kind of role players they will need to find to fit in around the quartet.
Unfortunately, through four preseason games and three regular season games that quartet has only played six minutes together. If everything goes right with Garland’s eye and there’s no additional injuries, we are likely not going to see them all back on the floor together until Friday’s game against the Celtics at the earliest.
There’s no reason to overreact, but it is disappointing that the Cavs have had next to no reps with the core group in three weeks of preseason and regular season games. This group needs to find extended time on the court this season if they want to take the leap into contender status.
Preseason Isaac Okoro hasn’t shown up.
Okoro looked like a different person offensively in the preseason. He appeared more sure of himself with the ball in his hands which allowed him to do more than just stand in the corner in the half-court.
Unfortunately, what happens in preseason isn’t always indicative of how things will go when the games count. Okoro has scored a total of 4 points on 2 of 10 shooting with 3 rebounds, no assists, 4 turnovers and 7 fouls in 59 minutes of play so far this season while having a -7.9 net rating. Those numbers make it hard to justify his place on the court no matter how good he may be defensively for a team who’s realistically trying to win 50+ games.
The Cavs simply need more from their wings. Caris LeVert hasn’t had a great scoring start to the season as he’s averaging 11.3 points per game on 30.3% shooting while not providing plus defense. The lack of depth and the up and down nature of Cedi Osman will allow Okoro to continue to get minutes even if he hasn’t earned them through three games.
Evan Mobley is off to a slow start.
The numbers haven’t necessarily been bad as Mobley is averaging 13.3 points and 5.3 boards on .560/.333/.917 shooting splits, but his play has left a little to be desired.
The second-year forward has struggled thus far against the smaller wings/bigs the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards threw at him. Mobley hasn’t been able to use his height to his advantage in the post while also being hesitant to put the ball on the floor. This has led to him being used more as a rim runner and finisher from the dunker spot which is not an ideal way to use a power forward sharing the floor with another (alleged) seven-footer.
Not being able to take advantage of smaller wings has clogged up the Cavs’ half-court offense which led to J.B. Bickerstaff deciding to sit Mobley for Dean Wade during the final two minutes of overtime against Washington.
Missing most of the preseason, losing the starting point guard he’s developed chemistry with and being thrown into an offense that completely revolves around Mitchell isn’t an ideal way for Mobley to start his sophomore campaign. There are many justifiable factors as to why he’s gotten off to a slow start and there isn’t a need to panic yet. But, it isn’t the start many were hoping for after hearing the coaching staff use the phrase H.O.F. to describe Mobley during the off-season.
Donovan Mitchell and bench lineups have worked.
The Cavs have done most of their damage this season with Mitchell and some combination of bench players. The inconsistent lineup combinations make it hard to bring this out in a clean stat, but lineups with Mitchell and Osman have outscored opponents by an average of 15.7 points per game in 22.8 minutes and lineups with Mitchell and Kevin Love have outscored opponents by 12 points per game in 12.3 minutes.
We haven’t gotten more than a preview of how Mitchell fits with the starting five yet, but we at least know staggering him and Garland has the potential of working well.
Cedi Osman has been the best version of himself through three games.
The coaching staff has made a concerted effort to tie a majority of Osman’s minutes with Mitchell which has allowed Osman to be the best version of himself. Of the 85 minutes Osman has played through three games, 65 of them have been with Mitchell.
Playing with a premier off-the-dribble scorer like Mitchell has allowed Osman to be more of a play finisher as opposed to a play creator which is a role he’s been miscast into for the better part of the last four seasons minus his stint with Rubio. As a result, Osman has been the Cavs’ second leading scorer through three games averaging 16 points with an effective field goal percentage of 70.
Those numbers won’t hold up, but being able to play off of Mitchell should keep Osman in his proper role. We’ll see if this can keep him from experiencing the lows that have bumped him from the rotation at times in recent seasons.
Donovan Mitchell is the real deal.
There’s a difference between a player who can go off for 30+ points and one who scores a casual 30+ points. Mitchell is the latter.
Mitchell has scored over 30 points in each of his first three games and is the sole reason the Cavs have been competitive despite the loss of Garland and the lack of production from other key contributors. Mitchell’s willingness to play over 44 minutes and produce 37 points in the overtime win against Washington on the second night of a back-to-back is the type of performance the Cavs have been lacking for years.
Mitchell has done the majority of his damage at the rim and from behind the arc. He has completed 14 of his 20 attempts at the rim while connecting on 11 of his 25 looks from behind the arc.
Mitchell’s learning curve with figuring out how to play with two traditional big men shows up in his midrange game. He has found himself in no man’s land there with no other options left but to shoot which has resulted in him going 9 for 23 from this area.
Working the in-between game is something that Garland mastered last season. Being able to attack the basket with a rolling big forces the defense to choose between defending the floater and defending the lob. Mitchell has shown progress with lob passes, but he still isn’t as polished as he needs to be. Defenses are forcing him to make that pass which he hasn’t always been able to complete. This in turn has led to those short in-between shots being more contested than you’d like. Progressing in this area should open up his scoring even more given the personnel he will be asked to play with in Cleveland.
Nitpicks aside, Mitchell has been as good as advertised. The Cavs finally have a top-tier scorer to pair with their defensive front line. It will take time to work out the kinks on both ends, but the potential to be a great team is there.