Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers focused on playoff success, not future speculation

By | April 3, 2024

CLEVELAND – The Eastern Conference is tossed with teams that have a degree of dominance mixed with periods of confusion and inconsistency – yet the optimism remains.

The Cleveland Cavaliers fit neatly into both categories, sometimes enchanting and sometimes confusing. They’re better built than the pack that meekly fell to the New York Knicks in five games in the first round last year, and despite injuries to almost every key player, the Cavaliers are on track for another 50-win season.

They have struggled with health and inconsistency but are still ranked third in the East. The Cavaliers are no longer riding the 17-1 stretch from early January to mid-February, which left them in the middle of the conference. Without it, they are 29-29 after Tuesday’s win over the Utah Jazz. But that’s not how it works. All games count. All the pieces are important.

Milwaukee is struggling, the New York Knicks are in free fall. Philadelphia is dependent on the health of the returning Joel Embiid. Miami has been up and down all year.

So Cleveland isn’t alone here.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports illustration)

It is rare for all pieces to be fully healthy and fire at the same time. You almost feel like there’s too much talent, even if there isn’t an overwhelming, physically imposing supernova.

The Cavaliers were without point guard Darius Garland and big man Evan Mobley in December and January, leaving All-Star Donovan Mitchell with the keys. It was where he found himself on the back end of the MVP discussion, averaging nearly 29 points with seven assists and five rebounds on 50/38/82 splits during the streak.

Not only was he healthy, he was destructive and played with a freedom that filtered through to his teammates.

“A lot of it came out of necessity. I felt like I was playing pretty well (before). But you only get respect by winning,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports. “Continue to play, be a better defender and rebounder. Being a passer is also huge.”

The Cavs’ only loss in that 17-1 stretch was to the Bucks, but not only did they turn around and beat them two nights later in the road-road game of the baseball series, they beat them by 40 a week earlier – they it with no Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup.

Mitchell was given the freedom to be the best version of himself by coach JB Bickerstaff, and Bickerstaff had to use some more conventional lineups to create space for Mitchell to exploit. They had found something and uncovered an identity that they have been trying to reclaim ever since. Mitchell credits Sam Merrill, Georges Niang and Isaac Okoro for stepping in and helping the Cavaliers form such an identity, to be a little tougher.

“It really came out of necessity,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports in early March. ‘You have to put down five. We put together groups that we thought fit together, and we have depth. So we have guys that we believe in and that were able to get the job done.”

They’re no more talented than Mobley — who could be generational when he arrives, but is leaner Duncan than Tim Duncan — and Garland, who made an All-Star team in 2022 but has seen his production decline somewhat. Garland was adequate in the playoffs last year, but neither he nor Mobley stood out in their first career postseason series — which is to be expected. How things will go the second time around will be the focus, regardless of the opponent.

Playing two small guards and two long bigs (Mobley and Jarrett Allen) who don’t necessarily have wide bodies makes for a unique situation. But the absences of Garland and Mobley made things more aligned during the streak, and now you’re wondering if the team has too much talent.

“I don’t believe it,” Bickerstaff said. “It matters, the personality of the talent. If you have selfish individual talent, I think that makes it extremely difficult. But if you have talent that understands that winning is the most important thing, and that talent is willing to sacrifice for victory, then I don’t think there is such a thing.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case, but the talent isn’t quite coherent yet.

“You can never have too much talent, but I will say this: I think it’s a testament to our depth,” Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman told Yahoo Sports, before giving credit to Bickerstaff. “We knew last summer that we would have to dig deeper, make ourselves more explosive and diversify our offense.”

They are launching 3s at a much higher rate than last season, with the same efficiency. Last year they were 24th in attempts. This time they are eighth and take five more per match. Garland’s field goal percentage is down since the break (41 percent), but that’s because nearly half of his shots are coming from 3, where he’s shooting at a 39 percent clip. Last spring he discovered that it was more difficult to get on the track while sledding; Playing and tracking more on Mitchell could be the best thing for him.

Mitchell would at least be on the All-NBA ballots if he were eligible. With 51 games, he does not meet the necessary threshold of 65 games. At the time he spoke to Yahoo Sports, Mitchell had missed a match and was five minutes away from reaching his limit – days later it was announced he would miss the time with a PRP injection in his left knee.

He has played four games since February 28.

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers watches against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on February 10, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 10: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers watches against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of their basketball game at Scotiabank Arena on February 10, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Will Donovan Mitchell sign an extension with the Cavaliers this season? (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Mitchell’s contract status has always been and will continue to be a topic of discussion. It’s all due to circumstance, dating back to when Mitchell was drafted by Utah and when he wanted out and the Jazz similarly wanted to go in a different direction; he wasn’t sent to his favorite destination, the hometown New York Knicks.

When his name comes up, it’s usually less about his play and more about his future.

“Simple story. I’m from New York, the contract situation is very easy when you don’t see us play,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports a month ago. “I think that’s it. You don’t see us play, you don’t want to see us play and that’s fine, and it’s easy to talk about.

“It’s like, ‘Where is he going? What is he going to do? I don’t know if he’s happy, this or that. I’m at the point where it’s whatever. I’m going to focus on being a leader for this group. That is it. I don’t really care.”

He was shipped off to another place that isn’t known to attract star free agents (albeit without ties to Akron, Ohio). Mitchell is eligible for an extension this summer and could opt out next summer, but has not yet discussed that. He won’t talk about it.

“The only time I ever felt (fear) was when I got traded,” Mitchell said. “Just because I had no idea, I’d never been in that position. It’s never happened to me in a negative way. It’s like, I’m not going to continue to comment on it. I’m not going to talk about it a thousand times. I’ve given my answer to media day and my job is to be the best player I can for this group.”

At media day, he said he told the front office he wanted to focus on the season because he was happy with the additions and not the speculation. He then pointed out that he could re-sign on his own in the summer of 2024.

That doesn’t mean he’s destined to bounce, nor does it mean he’ll pledge allegiance. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in a rare public statement that he believes Mitchell will re-sign.

Mitchell, true to form, wouldn’t add kerosene.

He prefers to concentrate on what lies ahead. Even during the streak, Mitchell was focused on how the Cavaliers played rather than the end result. It sounds like he had some clairvoyance, considering the struggles since then.

It would be fair if the Knicks series still stung him, but he says it doesn’t.

“Not in the way I thought it would happen. I think it’s more of a building block,” Mitchell said. “Am I angry that we didn’t make it to the conference finals, second round? Yes, but I can’t hold on to it, that’s the past. How can we get here to get past that. As it stands with me, I saw how this happened here, cool. I saw different guys in situations…more from a development standpoint.”

There’s no other way to put it: the Knicks beat them in the playoff series last year. The Cavaliers didn’t lack size, but perhaps the old-fashioned girth was lacking and the bulkier Knicks were throwing them around.

“You can’t be the best defensive team without some solidity. This year we are third (in early March),” Altman told Yahoo Sports, before pointing to some offseason signings such as veteran Tristan Thompson, Niang and Max Strus. “They definitely bring an edge and competitive spirit of physicality.”

Then he gets to the heart of the matter.

“For us, we’ve got to beat somebody, you know? Beat someone in April to prove ourselves. We want play-off success.”

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