DimeMag

Donovan Mitchell Is Exactly What The Cavs Were Looking For

For weeks, Donovan Mitchell seemed destined to join the New York Knicks. And then, with a singular 13-word tweet Thursday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced that destiny will not turn into reality.

In the deal, the Cleveland Cavaliers are sending Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027, 2029), and two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Mitchell.

Cleveland had previously been linked to Mitchell as an interested suitor, but New York’s combination of future picks, enticing young players, and resolute pursuit suggested a Knicks-or-bust result. Now, though, Mitchell is a member of the Cavaliers, one of the surprise teams of 2021-22 who ultimately fell short of the playoffs, in part due to some untimely injuries throughout the year.

Regardless of their disappointing play-in exit, the Cavaliers — shepherded by a trio of young stars in 21-year-old Evan Mobley, 22-year-old Darius Garland, and 24-year-old Jarrett Allen — touted one of the NBA’s brightest futures approaching 2022-23. Adding the 25-year-old Mitchell, a three-time All-Star and among the league’s 20 or so best players, only enhances that sentiment.

A season ago, Cleveland boasted a top-five defense and bottom-10 offense. When Sexton and Ricky Rubio went down before the turn of the calendar, the team didn’t holster the requisite personnel to field a viable offense and instead leaned into its elite defense, anchored by Allen and Mobley.

In fact, following Rubio’s injury on Dec. 28, the Cavaliers generated the NBA’s seventh-worst offensive rating. Defenses routinely trapped Garland, rotated properly on the back-side, and extinguished any 4-on-3 fires to stymie possessions. When Garland struggled — rangy length gave him problems — Cleveland desperately yearned for supplementary creation and couldn’t unearth it.

Enter Mitchell, an elite offensive talent and someone who can help remedy these issues. Trapping won’t suffice when he’s alongside Garland, not a chance. Over the past two years, he’s averaged 26-5-4 on 57 percent true shooting. Last season, he made sizable strides as a slasher and pick-and-roll initiator to reach the cusp of All-NBA status. Only a handful of players, let alone guards, are better offensively than him.

Cleveland now features a pair of elite ball-handlers whose approaches do not clash stylistically. Garland and Mitchell are a superbly harmonic backcourt offensively. They’re each masterful at setting up and manipulating screens. According to Synergy, they both finished top-20 in off-the-dribble volume, while placing in the 85th percentile or better in efficiency last season. They’re pick-and-roll savants, too. That’s a dynamite tandem upon which to establish offense.

Garland, in particular, thrives as a shooter, netting over 40 percent of 259 pull-up threes in 2021-22. His slender frame and insufficient vertical pop hinder him individually around the rim, even if he is a virtuoso interior playmaker. Meanwhile, Mitchell is an explosive, demonstrative driver who pairs those gifts with patience and craft — only six players generated more points per game out of drives (10.3) than him a year ago, per NBA.com. Downhill juice and long-range sniping is a snug intersection.

In Utah’s spacing-heavy offense the past few years, Mitchell reliably pierced the defense and sprayed kickout passes from an array of angles and deliveries (live dribble, bending around defenders, midair dimes, etc.). His athletic tools and budding on-ball savvy have morphed him into a stellar exterior passer. Given Garland’s second-nature chemistry with Allen and Mobley inside, that type of diversity in a playmaking portfolio can be integral to high-level offense. Passing is often treated as a broad term, but there are vital nuances to it and this duo checks off many of those nuances.

Among his acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, and weaponized handle, Mitchell is a prolific advantage creator. He’s refined his approach in ball-screens lately, learning to properly snake them, lock defenders onto his back or hip, and leverage a big man’s roll gravity into openings. His manipulation and creativity as a distributor have also expanded.

He’s just really, really good at catalyzing productive possessions in the half-court, a component the Cavaliers dearly missed last season. Over 70 percent of his buckets were unassisted and he averaged 25.9 points on above-average true shooting, while refining and growing the horizons of his facilitating.

One of the reasons Mitchell and Rudy Gobert struggled to maximize their offensive talents was Mitchell’s tendency to miss laydown passes or toss inaccurate lobs. Both Allen and Mobley are excellent, high-volume interior threats, so I’m curious how that element factors into Mitchell’s fit. They’re also more diverse in their finishing and scoring arsenals than Gobert, which could accelerate Mitchell’s acclimation and promote a greater willingness to prioritize such reads rather than precarious finishes.

A significant tweak to Garland’s usage last season was head coach JB Bickerstaff broadening his off-ball deployment, especially alongside Rubio or Rajon Rondo. With Mitchell in the fold, these capabilities should only continue to grow. Behind his shiftiness, balance, and concise release, Garland is an adept off-movement shooter. He ranked in the 74th percentile off screens (1.081 points per possession), according to Synergy. Spain pick-and-rolls featuring Garland as a back-screener and Mitchell commandeering things should be a popular wrinkle.

Expect more Floppy actions, second-side ball-screens, and a whole host of other sets that send him into motion before he receives the ball. His twitchiness, instantaneous processing, and silky touch all shine in these contexts. Mitchell, a premier offensive engine, can help accentuate them.

Similarly, Garland’s presence will alleviate some of Mitchell’s creation burden. Both ranked among the top-20 in time of possession and usage rate last season. The latter may maintain, the former should not. They’re divergently skilled at tilting a defense into rotation and capitalizing upon that shift. Not every high-usage, on-ball player is that. They each are.

Mitchell is ridiculously explosive and often decisive off the catch. Give him a bent defense and he’ll stretch that advantage into a fruitful possession. As Mike Conley Jr. struggled to withhold the same usage as the year prior, Mitchell generally operated on the ball more this past season. But those off-ball opportunities still manifested and he showcased how lethal he can be. Utah’s offense functioned best with lots of movement to enable these reps for Mitchell and while Cleveland doesn’t offer the same personnel, aiming to emulate similar themes would be wonderful.

During Conley’s All-Star 2020-21 campaign, Utah enjoyed a plus-12.6 net rating during their minutes together (plus-4.4 last season). When Garland and Rubio shared the court in 2021-22, Cleveland produced a plus-16.1 net rating. Those veteran guards are different than Mitchell or Garland, but I can easily see them dominating opponents and amplifying each other’s games. A secondary ball-handler, let alone one of All-Star-caliber, behooves them.

Plus, this move ensures the Cavaliers can keep one All-Star on the hardwood for 48 minutes. During non-Garland minutes, with Rubio on the floor, they posted a plus-1.3 net rating. After Rubio’s injury, they spiraled at minus-8.3 whenever Garland caught a breather. Rubio’s passing, probing, and decision-making exceed Mitchell’s, though the hope is Mitchell’s gigantic scoring and overarching creation edge overcome that. I’d bank on it easily.

I love the idea of a pick-and-roll involving one of Cleveland’s premier guards and bigs collapsing the defense, only to feed the other All-Star and let him cook. Flare screens into step-up pick-and-rolls should be a staple for them. Empty-side pick-and-rolls are imperative. The possibilities with two adaptable star guards is tantalizing offensively, even more so when they’re surrounded by a pair of shrewd roll men who double as valuable passing bigs.

Some onus rests on Bickerstaff. He certainly widened his offensive playbook last season and deserves credit for that, yet the bar from 2020-21 was not high (that team was not good, I know). The challenge for ingenuity heightens again. Cleveland is short on floor-spacing forwards after Markkanen and Agbaji’s departure. How does he optimize the Garland-Mitchell-Mobley-Allen quartet and mitigate concerns on the wing offensively?

Even defensively, he’ll have to amend last year’s scheme. Markkanen’s versatility of assignment and ground coverage were crucial to closing gaps and shrinking the floor. Mitchell is a poor screen navigator and point-of-attack option. Discerning how to compensate for Markkanen’s absence, both on the ball and as a helper during drives and ball screens near the nail, will be necessary developments.

Bickerstaff displayed admirable and effective creativity with the personnel at his disposal and the team isn’t short on defensive-minded wings (namely Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, Dean Wade), so there is warranted optimism. But Markkanen’s voluminous and malleable floor-spacing helped buoy some defensive-heavy lineups. It’s not a straightforward solution, though a solution should percolate nonetheless.

A few talking points worth examining: the idea that this is a dreadful defensive backcourt and Mitchell is in a comparable defensive ecosystem to Utah. I refute both.

Mitchell is bad defensively in various ways. I won’t pretend otherwise. He’s not bottom-of-the-league bad, however, and that distinction matters. He’s shown some instincts (albeit inconsistent) on the weak-side and touts dexterous hands to execute as a helper. The screen navigation, decision-making, and point-of-attack chops are all poor, though. He did commit to timely rotations more commonly over the second of the first round this year. The objective will be to reorient his approach. Whether it occurs, I am unsure, yet nuance is needed in analyzing why he’s bad and to what degree. It’s also worth noting Cleveland’s defensive cohesion and communication, at least last year, were much better than Utah’s. That transition alone may aid Mitchell.

Garland, on the other hand, is quite dependable. He slithers around screens effectively, reads passing lanes keenly, and is incredibly physical, even with his slender frame. Maneuvering complex weak-side responsibilities can overwhelm him and he’s unable to execute certain plays on and off the ball because of his size, but by and large, he’s not an issue. He holds his own in various manners, despite his limitations.

As for the gap in defensive environments, the Jazz required a help-side rim protector behind Gobert for years to prevent their early playoff departures. They never discovered one. Mobley happens to be the best one in the league. The Jazz also lacked strength and versatility on the wing defensively. Cleveland houses it with Okoro, Stevens, and Wade. There just are not negative parallels between these situations defensively. Mitchell may struggle to the same lengths he did with the Jazz, but the impact may be lessened by virtue of a revamped supporting cast.

Losing Markkanen will prompt a reoriented defensive scheme. It’s really difficult to envision this team’s potential shortcomings or playoff downfall unfolding anything like Utah’s. The contexts are simply quite dissimilar, largely due to Mobley’s existence. He has yet to begin his second year in the league, but all the excitement around his game is justified.

This is exactly the type of move you pounce on to seize advantage of such an unconventionally successful defensive scheme and roster makeup. Allen and Mobley are All-World defenders who blanket the court inside and outside like no other big man duo in the league. They’re also not on max deals or anything close to it. Allen is making $20 million. Mobley is owed $8.5 million next season. They’re a pair of top-50 players being severely shortchanged. Cleveland has a unique setup designed to insulate a questionable — not dreadful — perimeter group. It’s reaping the benefits by leaning on this atypical composition to elevate a troublesome offense. That is heady roster-building.

Before acquiring a perennial All-Star in Mitchell, Cleveland already resembled that of a playoff contender with upward mobility for homecourt advantage. Mitchell’s arrival drastically improves their outlook, now and later. He brings them an All-Star-level initiator to avoid those stretches of stagnant half-court offense that buried them time after time over the final couple months. Signed through at least 2024-25, he aptly complements an elite core whose youth belies their win-now skill-sets. He diversifies an offense that relied on so heavily on Garland that things fell apart when he needed a break.

Cleveland had to make some concessions in acquiring Mitchell, but that’s the case for almost any star on the trade block. It identified a clear need for more offensive juice and found an ideal target. This team is going to be a terror for the long haul. Mitchell will sit near the heart of that.

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