Donovan Mitchell’s first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers was the best of his career. His 28.3 points per game on .484/.386/.867 shooting with 4.4 assists while leading the Cavaliers back to the playoffs was enough to earn Mitchell a starting spot in the All-Star game and a place on the All-NBA Second Team. Both of which were career firsts.
This season showed how dynamic of a scorer Mitchell could be. The strides he made as a volume three-point shooter allowed him to become one of the most efficient high usage scorers in the league. Mitchell converted a career best 38.6% of his threes while also knocking down 39.2% of the 5.2 pull up threes he took per game. That 39.2% was third best in the league among the 17 players who took four or more pull up threes per game behind only Steph Curry and Tyrese Haliburton.
The outside shooting allowed Mitchell to do what he does best as a scorer. Attack the basket. Mitchell finished 68.2% of his looks at the rim while also making a habit of consistently getting to the line. This all added up to a 57.6% effective field goal percentage (89th percentile) on 1.25 points per shot attempt (90th percentile). All of which were career bests.
Mitchell’s improvements as a scorer carried a suboptimal Cavs’ offense for stretches throughout the season. But that didn’t translate to the playoffs.
The playoffs have a way of exposing your individual and teamwide flaws in a way that can’t be ignored. We saw that clearly with Mitchell’s offensive limitations.
Mitchell had a tremendous first two games of the series before things fell apart. In his last three games of the series, Mitchell averaged just 20.3 points on .397/.208/.750 shooting with 5 assists and 5 turnovers per game. This dip was due to Mitchell’s primary defender aggressively defending him while on the perimeter not allowing him to step into threes while the other four defenders packed the paint forcing Mitchel to beat them with his passing which he wasn’t able to do.
There has been a lot of focus on the Cavs’ lack of spacing with their two bigs and the inability of the role players to knock down shots when given the opportunity. While both are issues, Mitchell’s lack of playmaking and high turnovers are also a major reason why the offense collapsed like it did.
What separates Mitchell from the best offensive players in the league is his ability to set up his teammates. Mitchell has been the offensive engine of every team he’s been on in various forms of a heliocentric offense. While his assist totals have never been awful, they have largely been a function of how often the ball is in his hands as opposed to his ability to set up teammates.
Mitchell has consistently ranked in the bottom third of combo guards in assist-to-usage ratio. This season Mitchell landed in the 16th percentile with a 0.64 assist-to-usage rate. For context, that’s worse than Collin Sexton’s assist-to-usage rate his last healthy season in Cleveland.
Dwyane Wade has always been a natural comp for Mitchell due to their similar size and ability to get to the basket seemingly at will. While Mitchell is a significantly better three-point shooter than Wade ever was, Wade’s passing allowed him to remain efficient in the playoffs regardless of the roster structure.
Passing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Wade who finished his career averaging 5.4 assists per game. But that total is a full assist more than Mitchell’s career number to date. Even more, Wade averaged 8.4 assists per 100 possessions throughout his career compared with Mitchell’s 6.4. While Mitchell doesn’t need to become an elite playmaker by any means, he does need to get to a level that forces defenses to be somewhat honest with him.
The frustrating aspect is Mitchell has the ability to be a good passer. The willingness to look for that and lack of feel as to when to get others involved and when to call his own number is more of the issue.
This concern is exaggerated by his lack of off ball movement. While him and Darius Garland showed natural chemistry at times throughout the season, neither were able to truly capitalize on the other’s gravity by working well away from the play. This is why many of the other’s best games came when one was sidelined or nearly cut out of the offense entirely.
Playoff basketball is about forcing opponent’s to beat you in a variety of different ways. Mitchell’s second straight lackluster post season can be attributed to him not being the complete player he has the capability of being.
The success and failure of this past season for Mitchell show how exceptionally skilled he is while highlighting what he still needs to improve on to be his best self. That said, this version of Mitchell was still good enough to compile the best regular season from someone not named LeBron James in franchise history. That isn’t something to just casually push aside.
It’s easy to say Evan Mobley needs to hit his ceiling for this franchise to return to playing June basketball. While it’s an understandable sentiment, it isn’t the only way this team could reach it’s ceiling. Mitchell has the skillset to be the best offensive player on a Finals team. But that only happens if he too reaches his offensive ceiling by becoming a more willing distributor and a better off-ball mover.