Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers and their successful regular season were a pleasant surprise for fans. The Cavaliers emerged as one of the talented young teams making their presence known and reached a 44-38 record, led by their two young All-Stars Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland. They were supported by Rookie of the Year finalist Evan Mobley, who will also be an All-Star sooner rather than later.
This offseason, the Cavaliers acquired Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell in one of the most surprising trades of this year. With this trade, they entered the conversation as one of the contenders in a powerful Eastern Conference after not even making the playoffs since LeBron James left the team in 2018.
Donovan Mitchell’s fit with the Cavaliers
By acquiring Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers rounded out their young core. Mitchell is 26, Allen 24, Garland 22, and Mobley and Isaac Okoro are both only 21 years old, which gives them plenty of potential for the present and the future alike.
The key to them moving up a level is that they also managed to add a third All-Star to their promising, young roster without giving up any of their core pieces. Mitchell is not just any All-Star they could have brought to Cleveland. He an excellent fit, considering that he is still young enough to fit the Cavaliers’ timeline but also offers them some more experience than the rest of their core while he is just entering his prime. While the majority of the Cavaliers’ roster has never been in a playoff game, Mitchell averaged 28.3 points in 39 career playoff games, which is the seventh-best average in league history.
His scoring prowess and playmaking ability also directly fills a need on the basketball side, given how the Cavs’ offense stagnated at times last year. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked twentieths in offensive ratings; this should improve with the addition of Mitchell, one of the most explosive scorers in the NBA. He will add diversify the offense and make it impossible for opponents to key on Garland.
Mitchell and Garland will form one of the best scoring duos in the league. Garland recorded career highs last season with 21.7 points, 8.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from three. Mitchell averaged 25.9 points, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.5 steals while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from three. Combined, those two can really chew up a defense.
They will need to make some adjustments to their game, though. In Utah, Mitchell was the lone young star and focal point of their offense. Now, he is part of a young core and has to share the spotlight with other stars. Once that is figured out, he and Garland should work out well together. Garland is a reliable playmaker with good vision who can score on all three levels and should flourish in Mitchell’s company. Last season, the Cavaliers’ offense almost fell apart when Garland was off the court. Now, he will be able to share that responsibility with Mitchell.
Mitchell is a good example of what Garland might look like as a player in a couple of years. Garland is one of the most promising young guards in the league, which is the same spot Mitchell was in when he started out in the league and now he is an acknowledged young star. He was a first-time All-Star and a finalist for the Most Improved Player award last season. All this came after much criticism surrounding his game and future in the league, despite being drafted fifth overall in 2019. Garland proved his doubters wrong and is now a centerpiece of Cleveland’s rebuild, as his talent is part of what made the Cavaliers relevant again.
Sharing ball-handling time with Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio before their injuries made Garland better and also showed that he could effectively play off the ball on occasion. Mitchell is an upgrade in that aspect, so Garland should benefit even more from sharing the ball with him. He attracts much more defensive attention than either one of the other two players, which gives Garland more opportunities to score but also takes some pressure off of him. Mitchell has improved his passing and playmaking skills, but he is still a scorer first and a facilitator second. Having such a talented point guard as Garland as a backcourt partner will enable him to just focus on scoring when that is what the Cavs need.
Besides that, there is still a lot to figure out because they are both ball-dominant players and are also both better at pull up threes than catch and shoot threes. Neither one of them is a liability off the ball, though, so they can switch roles here too.
As well as Garland and Mitchell might complement each other offensively, they also have some of the same deficits. Both average around three turnovers per game; they’ll need to take better care of the ball but without sacrificing their aggressiveness. On the defensive end, both of them can struggle at times due to their size; however, this is not as big of an issue on this team as it would be on most teams because they have incredible defensive talents backing them up in Allen and Mobley. Improving their defense would still benefit each of them individually, however, and would make the team better. Last season, the team ranked fifth defensively and they do not want to fall too far in the rankings, so Garland and Mitchell will have some work to do here.
With four All-Star caliber players in the starting lineup, opposing teams will be facing a whole new challenge when playing the Cavaliers because every one of those players is a threat. Besides that, they should be able to play off of each other rather well and make up for each other’s deficits, even if there still are some questions surrounding the new lineup. Spacing is one thing that they will need to figure out in the beginning of the season. How much room is there for Mitchell to drive to the basket with two seven-footers around? Mobley does have the ability to play facing the basket and initiate offense from the high post, which should help.
The biggest question surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers right now is who their starting small forward next season will be. In the trade for Mitchell, they lost Lauri Markkanen, who was a solid starting small forward and also one of the few options they had at this position who was not undersized.
Mobley and Allen form a scary frontcourt and play well together, no matter who will fill the vacated spot. Currently, the Cavaliers do not have a player who can offer them exactly what Markkanen did for them at the three, but considering how good their two big men are, it can be expected that they will be able to make up for any sort of downgrade that is bound to happen. Allen was a first-time All-Star last season after emerging as one of the best rim protectors and big man in the league. Pairing Allen with Mobley turned out to be a good combination, and it should only become better the more time they spend on the court together.
Mobley is the youngest out of Cleveland’s new big four, but he might be the most talented one, which is a scary thought considering all the skill the others have already displayed. The youngster is a defensive phenomenon but can also contribute offensively as he is a good cutter and roller and has a good mid-range shot. For a player of his size, Mobley is also an excellent passer and will only continue to improve. As the third overall draft pick last year, everyone in and around the league had high expectations for Mobley and somehow, he still seems to have exceeded them. Associate head coach Greg Buckner predicted that Mobley can be a top 20 player in the future. That is a bold statement, but really not too far-fetched given what we have already seen from Mobley.
Isaac Okoro will probably end up starting in the frontcourt with Allen and Mobley. Okoro fits rather well with the two big men because he is also a great defender. Last season, he averaged 4.8 contested shots and 1.4 deflections, which will only improve with more playing time. His addition to the starting lineup will take defensive pressure off of everyone, as he can also pick up some of the slack left by the backcourt. Okoro’s defense is what will earn him minutes, but he needs to improve his shooting skills and his shot volume. Last season, he only took an average of 2.3 attempts from three. If he can improve that and his accuracy, he can become a vital role player. His shooting percentage from long range did improve from his rookie year so hopefully he can continue that trend, particularly with what should be more open looks.
Another option to fill the small forward spot is Lamar Stevens, who has a skill set similar to Okoro. Stevens was a rotational piece last season and showed potential. He is a tenacious defender, but not a big scorer and needs to improve his shooting and off-ball movement. These issues should be solved with some more experience, though.
A third option to round out the starting lineup is Caris LeVert, who would can initiate offense and has can finish either on drives or pull ups. LeVert is not a great defender, though, and having three subpar defenders in the starting lineup would be putting a lot of pressure on Allen and Mobley to carry the team at that end of the floor. LeVert will likely become an important part of the second unit, as he provides useful and immediate scoring off the bench and with his size and versatility can sub in for either Garland or Mobley and play alongside the other.
Not to be forgotten is Cedi Osman, who is a legit 6’8″ tall and has been a starter in the past. Osman frustrates fans and coaches with his inconsistency, but when he has it going he becomes a problem for defenses. He is a legitimate shooting threat, albeit streaky at times, and has the athleticism and court vision to complement the others. Osman needs to limit mistakes, careless plays, and defensive lapses.
In addition to their young stars, the Cavaliers also have a solid group of supporting role players on their roster. Kevin Love, for example, is one of the few veterans who can offer the young team some reliable support and playoff experience. Coming off the bench, Love will provide scoring, rebounding and depth at the four and five positions. Last season, Love actually finished second in voting for Sixth Man of the Year, just behind Tyler Herro, and will be an important asset and leader for the bench unit.
Love is an excellent shooter and should benefit from Mitchell’s presence on the court. Mitchell has improved his drive-and-kick ability over the years, which should work well with Love as the recipient of the kick-out pass. Love is also one of the better outlet passers in the NBA, which should enable the guards and wings to get out and run.
Besides Love, the Cavaliers have another veteran in Ricky Rubio, who will not be back until midseason due to a torn ACL. When he returns, however, he brings valuable playmaking, vision, feel for the game, and a boost off the bench to the game. Rubio was having one of his better seasons last year coming off the bench and the Cavs were excited to be able to bring him back to hopefully recapture that magic, but they will not rush him in his recovery process.
While Rubio still recovers, Raul Neto will take over some of the backup point guard minutes. Neto has a good drive and can create for his teammates in pick-and-roll situations. On the other end of the floor, he can put defensive pressure on ball-handlers, which makes him a reliable two-way option. Neto’s size and experience makes him a huge upgrade from what the Cavs were forced to put out last year, which was an overmatched Kevin Pangos and a fairly washed-up Rajon Rondo
Cleveland has assembled a unique roster, and what makes them so special is the young ago of all their stars. It seems that Cleveland is done with its rebuild and is now ready to step out of LeBron James’ shadow.
The Cavaliers now have several players who can score in double figures on any night along with a group of versatile and talented defenders. After they pulled off such a big trade to round out their core, the expectations for Cleveland’s success are high, but we should not forget that their core is still developing.
They might not be contenders just yet, but Cleveland turned themselves into a playoff team. With their young core assembled and locked in for several years, the Cavaliers’ championship window just opened and will remain that way for quite some time.
Cleveland improved a lot through the Donovan Mitchell trade and while there are still established veteran teams to deal with that have a more established track record of success, the Cavaliers now have what it takes to compete with them and maybe even surpass them.