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The Cavaliers show proof of concept with Donovan Mitchell running the show

Mitchell’s play at point guard in Darius Garland’s absence has been a blessing in disguise

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Dean Wade sat outside his locker with his feet in a giant bowl of ice after a 127-119 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 16. Donovan Mitchell just notched a career-high 13 assists in his first game filling in for Darius Garland as the point guard. Four of those assists resulted in a made three by Wade.

“I mean, he draws so much attention it’s ridiculous man,” Wade said about Mitchell playing the point. “All five defenders are looking at Donovan. Tonight you saw when two people were on him, he made the right pass every single time.”

Mitchell was thrust into lead ballhandler duties after it was announced Garland would miss at least a month with a jaw injury. The Cavs have the best winning percentage in the league and a 10-3 record since that announcement. Mitchell has averaged 29.2 points and 7.2 assists per game while his team has registered an impressive 120.6 offensive rating when he’s on the court during that stretch.

“It’s an opportunity for [Mitchell] to handle, score, and be aggressive,” said Houston Rockets head coach Ime Udoke before their matchup last month. “The ball’s in his hands pretty much full-time now. He’s just more dangerous with the ball in his hands. I’m not sure about him running the old-school point.”

“He’s got a duel role,” said Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “We need him to be dominant offensively. That’s not just scoring the ball. It’s facilitating and getting everyone involved.”

The simplest way Mitchell has gotten his teammates involved is with the three-ball. In their last 13 contests, Cleveland is first in three-point attempts per game (43.9) and three-point frequency (44.5% of their shots). For comparison, they were 18th in attempts (33.1) and 16th in frequency (34.7%) in their first 25 games.

Mitchell’s approach starts with getting pressure on the rim and then working out from there.

“Different point guards do it different ways,” said Mitchell. “For me, it’s about finding ways to attack, finding ways to draw in the defense, and make things easier for my teammates.”

Mitchell has been responsible for 19.6 three-point attempts per game with 9.8 attempts coming off of passes from him and 9.8 three-point shots of his own. For context, he was responsible for just 16.1 attempts prior to Garland’s injury.

If you look at the best primary ball handlers in the league, they all share the trait of being able to create three-point looks for themselves and their teammates which is exactly what Mitchell has done.

Table of three-point attempts created from other primary ball handlers.
Stats current through 1/15/24
Information compiled from

Mitchell’s limitations as a playmaker have been easy to spot in the past as he’s struggled to get bigs the ball with lobs or dump-off passes when driving to the basket. However, the team’s simplified approach has helped cover those issues.

The increased spacing has allowed Mitchell to shortcut that process entirely making it easier for him to find Jarrett Allen earlier in the play. Instead of forcing it to his big as a last resort, the opposing defense’s longer rotations make it easier for him to get the ball to Allen while he still has his dribble or before he turns the corner completely in a pick-and-roll. This has led to Mitchell averaging two assists per game to Allen over the past month.

“The biggest thing is just making the simple play,” said Mitchell. “When teams are collapsing like that, which is going to continuously happen, the biggest thing is to get off the ball and find guys.”

The clarity Mitchell is playing with now is in stark contrast to last year’s series with the New York Knicks. As is the space he has to operate with now.

This bares out in the numbers over in the recent games he’s played in Garland’s absence. He has an assist percentage of 32.3% (96th percentile for combo guards) while being in the 54th percentile in assist-to-usage ratio for combo guards despite having the highest usage for his position.

While this has worked well for the Cavs in the short term, the goal is to maximize both Mitchell and Garland’s skills in a way that allows each other and the team to be the best version of themselves. Bickerstaff preached upping the three-point volume throughout training camp and the beginning of the season, but it didn’t materialize. He’s hoping that the success they’ve had this past month will allow them to continue playing this way when they’re fully healthy.

“There were so many guys that were in and out [of the lineup] that we were just hunting,” said Bickerstaff. “We were talking about playing a little bit differently. Playing with more movement and those things. And if you don’t get the reps at it, it’s hard to become what you want to be.

“Now we’ve gotten close to 40 games under our belt. Guys have an understanding of what we’re trying to do and they’re going out and they’re able to execute it now.”

Mitchell was excited about being traded to Cleveland because of his belief in Garland. That hasn’t changed.

“At the end of the day, [Garland] is an All-Star,” said Mitchell. “We came in and made this thing for us to be together. So it’s definitely not me versus him. That’s my brother, that’s my dog. . . But I’m just gonna continue to play the way I play until he gets back.”

The optimized version of Mitchell is one of the most dynamic players in the league. J.B. Bickerstaff’s next challenge will be figuring out how to get this version of Mitchell and his team when they’re back to full strength.