After an entire season of evaluation, and games that showed the best and the worst that the Cleveland Cavaliers had to offer, it’s time for the Cavs’ front office to take a step back and reflect upon how to improve their roster and make the jump back into playoff contention.
“It’s not always going to go your way,” Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell said following the team’s loss to the New York Knicks in the NBA Playoffs, via ESPN Cavs beat reporter Danny Cunningham. “And it sucks. It hurts. It’s terrible. I’m riding 30 minutes of sleep here, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I work hard for this. You go through this beauty and the struggle. This, there’s going to be a time where we figure this out.
“I’m six years in and I haven’t made it past the second round. There’s going to be a time where I figure it out and it’s coming. But if I’m not going to let this, and I don’t think any of us going to let this define us, define me and I’ll be better for it. We’ll be better for it.”
Who stood out as some of the more impactful players on Cleveland’s roster? And who were the players who took strides forward in the Cavs’ turbulent run to the NBA Playoffs?
Cavs MVP: Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell’s expectations to perform at a high level were all but set after Altman called the blockbuster trade “perhaps the biggest trade in franchise history” in September.
So far, aside from a few performances throughout the 2022-23 season, he has more than lived up to the hype.
From Game 1 to 82, Mitchell’s impact on the court highlighted a season that saw the Cavs take a step from fighting in the Play-In tournament to taking a Top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
He set the standard for a newer-look Cavaliers team when he scored 43 points in the Cavs’ second matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers. He led Cleveland with a career-high 28.3 points per game, ending the season with 13 games of 40 or more. He broke the tie with LeBron James for the most 40-point performances in a season by a Cavs player with 12 during a 115-105 win over the Indiana Pacers earlier this month.
“It’s legendary,” Cavs guard Darius Garland said, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. “It’s a bucket. It just shows the work that he puts in and the ability to go out and do it at a high level for a stretch like that.
“I’m super proud of him. I want him to be more aggressive, want him to get to 40-and 50-balls, whatever it takes to win the game.”
Cavs Defensive Player of the Year: Evan Mobley
While center Jarrett Allen mainly took up the role of being an interior anchor for the Cavaliers, Mobley’s defensive versatility shone through during his second season in the league.
He ended the year with 6.6 defensive rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while taking home 0.140 defensive win shares, a player statistic that attributes credit to players based on their ability to prevent opposing teams from scoring, according to Sports Lingo. The win-share rating put him on par with Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and 0.05 behind Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez, both of whom were Defensive Player of the Year finalists towards the end of the season.
“He should be the Defensive Player of the Year,” Mitchell said following a 130-116 win by the Knicks in March, via ESPN Cavs beat reporter Danny Cunningham. “I’ve played with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, so I know what it looks like and I’m seeing it with him, for sure.”
Mobley’s versatility on both sides of the court earned him a “unicorn” comparison from Garland in November.
“I always tell Evan’ you’re him,'” Garland said. “He’s a unicorn.
“He does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t do in this league. He can do whatever he wants on this team, literally. I tell him, ‘You can do whatever, it’s your team.’ He knows that too. He’s just building every day, and he’s going to get there.”
Most Improved Player: Darius Garland
Darius Garland had no hesitation in setting lofty expectations for himself in his NBA career.
“Like I said, I have a lot of strides to go,” Garland said in September, via NBA on ESPN. “But I think I’m one of the top young guards in this league for sure.
“So, that’s my goal: to be one of the top guards in this league, and hopefully be the best one.”
Whether people consider him one the best young guards in the league or not, Garland has made strides during his fourth season in the NBA. No, he didn’t make the All-Star game, and his stats took a slight dip from the season before. But, even while playing with a new top scorer and while entrusted with a more prominent role as a young leader, Garland has stayed the course with only slight differences between 2022 and 2023.
“This whole year is an example of what a great teammate he is,” Bickerstaff said following a 10-point win over Indiana in early April. “When you are a 23-year-old kid who’s just kind of coming into your own, coming off an All-Star year, he could have very easily felt some kind of way about Donovan coming and joining this team.
“He could have continued through the year to feel some kind of way about Donovan’s shots, Donovan’s attention, Donovan’s successes. But he never once had any concern, any issue with that. All he’s ever done is support, and I think that speaks to who he is as a person and as a teammate.”
Sixth Man of the Year: Caris LeVert
No playoff team is complete without a reliable sixth man.
LeVert took his role off the bench in stride, ending the season with averages of 12.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with 74 games played and 30 starts. LeVert started in the first 14 games of the season before moving to a backup role in November, gaining sporadic starts as the season dragged on. He again took up starting roles in Games 3-5 of the team’s playoff series against New York.
“That’s just the type of dude he is where all he wants to do is be a part of the team and help the team win and he’s been willing to do whatever it takes,” Bickerstaff said. “The thing that I think has been most impressive is he’s been a mainstay on all of our defensive stuff.
“His activity, he’s willingness to take assignments, that’s never wavered no matter what his offensive role has been. So, he’s been able to hang his hat on that and then find the spots and pick and choose on offense as well.”
LeVert, the subject of multiple trade rumors throughout the season, separated himself as an X-Factor for the Cavaliers during Game 2 against New York. He worked well off the ball for open catch-and-shoot attempts alongside starters and bench players, ending the night with 24 points and four makes from the 3-point line.
LeVert admitted he wants to return on Thursday, citing the team’s culture as a reason why.
“I definitely want to be a part of this culture, be a part of this team,” LeVert said. “This group is a super special group and I definitely want to be a part of that.
“But you all know it’s a business, so we’ll see what happens this summer.”