The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a complicated history with superstars. Michael Jordan was the star who stood in the way of the late 80’s and early 90’s teams. Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and company weren’t talented enough to get over the superstar of all superstars.
Then LeBron James came around, left and came back around before leaving again. He had his best seasons with the team, but the constant specter of what he would do in the future clouded the partnership.
The Cavs had three first overall picks during James’s exile, but for a variety of reasons, none of those players ever became the guy the city hoped they would be on draft night.
Koby Altman’s biggest success with this most recent rebuild was finding pieces who fit together and could become greater than the sum of their parts, but there’s a chance none of those high picks become superstars. This is why the Donovan Mitchell trade was necessary.
Mitchell continues to make the impossible look routine in a way that no other Cavalier has outside of LeBron.
Mitchell notched his third 40 point performance as a Cav in just his 26th game. This is a feat that only James and Kyrie Irving have accomplished in the franchise’s entire history.
That stat puts into perspective how incredible of a season Mitchell is having. He’s now averaging 29.7 points on .506/.436/.897 shooting while leading his team to victories. Mitchell is currently notching a 31.6 usage rate which is the second highest among guards while averaging the third highest points per shot attempt (1.3). That combination is nearly unheard of. All the while, he’s putting together what might be his best defensive season of his career.
During his short time in Cleveland we’ve already seen him take down the defending conference champions in overtime twice, outduel Luka Dončić on his home floor, sweep LeBron while telling his team to go the f- home and most recently score as many points as the Indiana Pacers did in the fourth quarter to capture a comeback victory. That’s the stuff superstars do again and again over the course of a season.
He’s done this while also leading Cleveland to a 20-11 record which puts them on pace for 52 wins. If they were to reach that, this would be only the fourth time in the franchise’s history that they achieved 50 plus wins without James.
The Cavs are also currently third in the East. If that holds, it would only be the sixth time Cleveland finished top three in the conference without James.
The NBA has and always will be run by stars. It’s a league of the have and have-nots. You can build good teams without having the guy, but it’s impossible to build a champion. This is why there will always be reincarnations of the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and none for the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
Mitchell will likely never be the best player in the league or even in that conversation. But he does have the it factor you need from your best player to get you to the promise land. He’s showed that with the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, and is showing it repeatedly on a team he seems to fit with better.
You can’t judge blockbuster trades like the one that brought Mitchell to Cleveland after just three months. But, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for Koby Altman and the Cavs at this point.
The Cavs finally have their superstar for this era. It was worth the wait.