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Mitchell taking his game and the Cavs to new heights

David Liam Kyle / NBA / Getty Images

There were a lot of reasons why the Cavaliers were punted out of the playoffs in the first round last year after a promising regular season. The Knicks beat them up, dominated them on the boards, and shrunk the floor by treating their non-shooters like they didn't exist. The Cavs' starting frontcourt quaked under the Knicks' brute force and the bright lights of the postseason.

There was also the simple fact the team's best player had a woeful series by his standards. On the heels of a brilliant debut campaign in Cleveland that earned him an All-NBA second-team nod, Donovan Mitchell's turnovers spiked, his scoring efficiency cratered, and he was relentlessly hunted on defense by New York. A lot of that had to do with the way the team around him performed, and the way it was constructed; Mitchell saw extra bodies any time he drove or came off of a screen and his teammates weren't able to capitalize, but Mitchell himself needed to be much better.

The encouraging news for the Cavs is that both Mitchell and the surrounding roster have improved, something that became particularly evident during the 14-4 stretch they put together without either Darius Garland or Evan Mobley. Both are back now (albeit on tight minutes restrictions) and the team keeps winning (though not wholly convincingly against shaky competition the last two games).

Their reintegration will take some time as coach J.B. Bickerstaff tries to figure out how to graft the shorthanded team's formula onto the fully healthy roster, but there are huge positives to take away from what the Cavs accomplished in their absence. At 30-16, they now sit just a game out of the No. 2 seed in the East, and they have the conference's third-easiest remaining schedule.

Mitchell's pick-and-roll and overall scoring efficiency are down a bit from last year, mainly because he's having one of his worst 3-point shooting seasons (34.8%), with his pull-up threes in particular taking a hit. He's also been less accurate from floater range and less effective as a scorer on drives. But those numbers don't account for all the ways he kept Cleveland humming while shouldering an enormous offensive load - and playing a key role for a defense that led the league in points allowed per possession - while Garland and Mobley were sidelined.

Also, his numbers are still exceptional. After his backcourt mate went down with a jaw fracture, the newly minted Eastern Conference All-Star and January Player of the Month averaged 29-5-8-2 on 60% true shooting, with the best raw plus-minus in the league behind only OG Anunoby. The Cavs ranked 25th in offensive rating before Garland's injury and rank seventh since. Mitchell's scoring has been a huge part of that: he's one of the best self-creators in the game and he's proven time and again that he's an absolute workhorse who can scale up his own production as needed. But the bigger revelation during this stretch has been his playmaking.

When it comes to passing, ability has never been Mitchell's issue. He's always had the skill, he's just often had a habit of missing or eschewing passing reads to call his own number. That hasn't been the case recently. He's necessarily soaked up a ton of Garland's touches, but he also spread them around, keeping others involved and showing a willingness to get off the ball early and often.

He's using unpredictability and manipulation to get the Cavs great looks in the first few seconds of the shot clock. He might throw an underhand live-dribble strike from midcourt to Georges Niang in the corner on one play. The next, he might find a streaking Mobley with a look-away lob in semi-transition:


One way to avoid getting bogged down and swarmed in the half court the way Mitchell did in last year's postseason is to kick the offense into gear quickly. That was a stated focus for the Cavs coming into this season and they're finally doing it. They're the second-most productive transition team in the league when accounting for volume and efficiency, up from eighth last season and 12th this year before Garland's injury, per Cleaning the Glass. Mitchell is by far the biggest driver of that uptick; Cleveland's transition frequency jumps by 5.4 percentage points overall, and by 9.3 percentage points off live rebounds, with him on the floor.

He creates a lot of those opportunities himself because he's actually a great defensive rebounder for his size, often skying to snare one-handed boards in traffic before pushing the ball up the floor:


When the team gets boxed into the half court, Mitchell's developed a crackling chemistry with Jarrett Allen and is more frequently using the red-hot big man as a roller. Mitchell is plenty capable of threading the pocket pass, but just as often he'll leverage Allen's roll gravity with high-velocity skip passes to open weak-side shooters.


The Cavs' newfound spacing and 3-point volume will take a hit when Mobley's back up to his usual minutes load, but they're still much better equipped to make defenses pay for loading up on their guards than they were a year ago. They have so many more quality options on the wing to mix and match with, whether they're searching for the right fifth guy to round out starting and closing lineups, or filling out lineups with only one of the bigs and one of the guards, as they've done the last six weeks.

Max Strus has proven to be a perfect offensive fit: a live-wire movement shooter who magnetizes defenders everywhere he goes, even when he's only shooting 33% from deep. He's also defending well enough that the Cavs can close with him over Isaac Okoro and feel comfortable they'll survive. Okoro, for his part, has been a monster defending at the point of attack, and while hitting 38% of his threes still isn't earning him any respect as a shooter, he's also been more assertive as a driver against tilted defenses.

Dean Wade, who was killing it as a 3-and-D guy last season before a shoulder injury derailed him, is healthy again and back to canning 40% of his triples while capably guarding two through four. Niang has fit in nicely as a frontcourt spacer who can make the odd play off the bounce and defend well in a team context. Caris LeVert has been very solid as a creator off the bench.

Then there's Sam Merrill, a gunslinger with a permanent green light who's shooting 44% from deep on near-historic per-minute volume. He's been arguably the deadliest screening partner for Mitchell; their two-man dance is a whir of flares and ghost screens and improvised pitch-backs that tie defenses in knots:


Not everyone is going to prove trustworthy in the playoffs (Merrill feels like a particularly big question mark), but the well is deeper than it was last year when Cleveland entered the postseason with only three viable options - Okoro, LeVert, and Cedi Osman - beyond its top four.

The Cavs are still going to depend on defense, and it bears repeating: they authored the NBA's best defense during the 20-game stretch without Mobley, a Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Allen deserves the bulk of the credit, followed by Okoro, but don't sleep on Mitchell's contributions. As an individual defender, his smallish stature remains an impediment, which is why he'll continue to be targeted and why questions about the playoff viability of Cleveland's backcourt will persist (even though their defense held up fine in that Knicks series). As a team defender, though, Mitchell is better than the majority of guards in the league at this point.

Cleveland likes to stash him on low-usage wings and unleash him as a weak-side disruptor. Whether he's guarding the wing or the corner, he makes impeccable reads and timely rotations; tagging rollers and cutters, helping on drives, and getting his hands on a ton of basketballs:


He ranks third in the league in steals per game (1.9), and sixth in deflections (3.1). Cleveland allows 10.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the second-biggest differential in the league among players who've played at least 500 minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. That definitely overstates his defensive impact (and the fact Milwaukee's Malik Beasley is the lone player above him indicates this stat should be taken with a grain of salt), but there's no doubt Mitchell has been a clear positive on that end.

Of course, none of this assures him or the Cavs of anything. They had the second-best net rating in the league last season and look where it got them in the playoffs. Considering the way the East's top five have separated themselves, it feels imperative for Cleveland to nab a top-three seed. Not that the Heat, Pacers, or Magic are slouches, but the Cavs would likely be favored against any of them, whereas they'd be underdogs against any of the teams that fell into a 4-5 matchup with them.

If they fail to get out of the first round again, changes are almost certainly coming. The cloud of Mitchell's free agency is hovering over them, even though it's still a year and a half away. For such a young team, they're facing an uncommon amount of pressure.

The good news is the Cavs gave themselves some breathing room and at least forestalled those difficult decisions by turning this season around. When Garland went down, they were 13-12 with a negative net rating, sitting ninth in the East. There were murmurings they should punt the season then, pre-empt Mitchell's free-agency decision, and try to maximize their return for him while they could. Mitchell, to his credit, didn't rock the boat, or look for a way off it. Instead, he grabbed the wheel and guided the team through some choppy waters by playing the best ball of his career.

Maybe this all ends with another playoff letdown, and with Mitchell donning a different uniform. But for now, the Cavs and their fans have to be thrilled he's still wearing theirs.

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