The Cleveland Cavaliers won three of their four games this week including a 21-point comeback victory over the Chicago Bulls fueled by 71 points from Donovan Mitchell.
Here’s what we learned this week.
The starting lineup remains an issue.
The Cavs have started four different openings lineups this week. All four of those lineups have been outscored as they’ve combined to be a -17 in 52 minutes.
This has been nothing new this season as the Cavs’ most used lineup of Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Lamar Stevens, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen has been outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions while registering a poor 118.7 defensive rating. This isn’t unique to this lineup as the opening night starters with Caris LeVert opened the year with a -5.7 net rating prior to LeVert being benched on November 18.
The poor starting lineup combinations have resulted in slow starts to each half this season. The Cavs have the 11th best net rating in the first quarter (3.0) and the 17th best in the third (0.4). Cleveland has played their best basketball in the second and fourth quarters where they’ve typically run more hybrid bench lineups.
There is no perfect solution for the fifth starter currently on the roster. While going back to LeVert seems to be the logical fit, there was a justifiable reason why he was pulled. Isaac Okoro appears to have gained the starting lineup for the time being.
Regardless of who starts, the Cavs simply need to get better production from those units if they want to make a postseason run.
Caris LeVert is continuing his solid play.
LeVert hasn’t had the season many were hoping for, but he’s starting to turn that around. Since Christmas, LeVert is averaging 16.6 points, 3 assists and 1.4 steals per game on .477/.432/.727 shooting splits which is good enough for a 56.8 effective field goal percentage.
Being re-inserted in the starting lineup for four games during that run has helped. On the season, he has played much better as a starter than he has as a reserve as he’s averaging 15.1 points and 4.7 assists with a 49.4 effective field goal percentage while averaging just 9.8 points and 2.6 assists with a 45.6 effective field goal percentage coming off the bench.
More encouragingly, LeVert’s fit with the core four has improved since first being moved to the bench in mid-November. Since Nov. 18, that five-man unit has produced a 111.1 offensive rating and a 71.4 defensive rating in 46 minutes. This translates to them outscoring opponents by 40 points during that stretch which is the highest total of any lineup during that time frame despite being only the fourth most used lineup.
The Cavs have struggled to find a fifth starter to go along with the core four. Trading for one seems like the answer, but it’s difficult to make a trade for a fifth starter without including LeVert given his contract and the lack of movable draft capital. LeVert’s recent play makes that conversation a little more complicated than it was this time last month. He’s showing glimpses of being the tertiary playmaker and shooter they desperately need as seen in his play with the core four.
Koby Altman has shown that he isn’t afraid of making a big move at the deadline if it makes sense. LeVert’s play the next few weeks will go a long way in determining what moves are out there and whether involving LeVert in a trade is in the best interest of the team.
Raul Neto has provided a much needed spark.
The Neto signing hasn’t worked out for both parties liked they hoped. He was brought in to be the backup point guard until Ricky Rubio’s return. Instead, he’s mostly been relegated to the end of the bench and only getting spot minutes if there’s an injury.
This week, Neto showed why the Cavs prioritized him in free agency. He provided the steading presence you need from your back-up point while providing energy on both ends. As a result, the Cavs won the minutes he played in all four games this week including a much needed 14-point outing in the win Wednesday night against the Phoenix Suns.
You need sparks from unlikely sources during the doldrums of January. Neto provided that this week and has played a contributing role in the Cavs winning four of their last five games.
Evan Mobley has the “winning gene.”
It hasn’t been a good scoring stretch for Mobley. Dating back to December 20th, the second-year big is averaging 10.6 points, 7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in seven games. He’s doing this on .493/.000/.533 shooting splits.
Mobley has done a good job of finishing at the rim during this time frame as he’s finished 26 of his 33 attempts (78.8%). The issue has been the shot attempts not at the rim. He has hit just 7 of his 34 shots (20.6%) not coming at the rim including going 0-9 from distance.
One of those seven shots that he did hit was a game winner over the Suns.
ICE IN HIS VEINS #LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/OUaABe5yy6— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) January 5, 2023
It says a lot about Mobley as a competitor that he had the confidence to take and make that shot considering how poorly he’s shot the ball recently. The same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff who had the trust in the put Mobley in that position.
J.B. Bickerstaff says Evan Mobley has a “winning gene” after hitting the game-winning shot against the Phoenix Suns tonight. pic.twitter.com/5V1F1uFvsA— clevelanddotcom Cavs (@PDcavsinsider) January 5, 2023
The 21-year-old is now 13-18 (72.2%) from the field in clutch situations (when the game is within five points with under five minutes to play) on the season which is far and away the team’s best percentage.
Mobley hasn’t made the leap as a scorer that many, including possibly some within the organization, were anticipating. That said, he’s still made meaningful improvements as a playmaker and rebounder while flashing his skills as a scorer in the clutch.
Donovan Mitchell can score 71 in a game.
It’s still difficult to process Mitchell’s 71-point outing, and all the records he set, a week after the fact. Mitchell’s performance was tied for the eighth most in a game in NBA history and is tied for the second most scored since the addition of the three-point line in 1979 behind only Kobe Bryant’s 81 points in 2006.
The most impressive part of Mitchell’s performance was that it came in a 21-point come-from-behind victory. Mitchell wasn’t chasing a number. He was just trying to win the game.
Mitchell’s ability to step up when his team needs him most has been a constant theme in his short time with the Cavs. His will to win and ability to lead them to unlikely victories has already occurred countless times. They wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the East like they currently are without him.
Last Monday’s outing is one of the most impressive individual basketball games ever played. Donovan Mitchell’s name will forever be synonymous with 71.