From the moment the trade that sent guard Donovan Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers was completed, the bar was set high for a young and rising Cavaliers roster.
They had won the most games since their last NBA Finals appearance in 2018. Cleveland pulled off the trade without giving up any of the players that made up the rest of the Cavs’ big four, an outcome Mitchell said he was afraid was going to happen.
“Darius and (Mobley), JA (Jarrett Allen) — those were the three guys,” Mitchell said when asked who he was worried he was going to lose, via The Athletic NBA Senior Writer Sam Amick. “And I didn’t know the rest of our roster, but Darius and Evan for sure, because I knew what was being asked (of the Jazz in trade talks) from New York.”
The Cavaliers pushed their way to a 51-31 record under the guidance of a nearly-completed roster and a coach who had spent almost four years with the roster in J.B. Bickerstaff. Mitchell soared to heights not seen by any Cavalier with a 71-point game against a division rival and when he passed guard J.R. Smith to become the all-time leader in Cavs history for single-season 3-pointers.
The season may not have ended how it was supposed to. But the Cavaliers set the groundwork for a new era in Cleveland basketball.
“You can’t let one series define you as a group or as a player, as an individual,” Mitchell said, via Bally Sports Ohio. “I think we have a special group that can do a lot of different things and continue to grow. I had a playoff series against Houston. I shot something like 30% from the field, 20% from 3. The last game, the elimination in Game 5, I shot 4-22 from the field.
“That forever changed me, like as a player. That moment was always in my head. That series. And I haven’t missed an All-Star game since that. It just changed my trajectory in a positive way.”
Did Donovan Mitchell live up to the massive expectations put upon him? And where can the 26-year-old guard go from here?
As he stood on the sidelines of FirstEnergy Stadium in September, Donovan Mitchell set high expectations for not just himself, but every one of Cleveland’s young and budding players.
“Honestly, a guy who just puts in the work,” Mitchell said when asked what kind of basketball player Cleveland was going to get this season. “Nonstop. There are going to be ups and downs, we’ll continue to put in the work.
“Not just myself. We’ve got Evan (Mobley), Darius (Garland), Caris (LeVert), (Kevin Love), Jarrett Allen. The list goes on. We’ve got a team that’s ready to compete. Young, hungry. We got a taste of the playoffs last year, but we’re looking at progressing and getting better each year.”
Mitchell’s career year helped guide the Cavaliers from a taste to a full portion of the postseason.
Mitchell gained career-highs in the regular season in points per game with 28.3, field goal percentage with 48.4% and 3-point percentage with 38.6%. He racked up 13 games with 40 points or more, including three 40-point outings against the Boston Celtics across the regular season.
Even after losing against the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the team’s NBA Playoff series, Mitchell still found a way to set a scoring record during his Cavs playoff debut.
“Despite the loss, Donovan Mitchell sets the Cavaliers playoff debut scoring record with 38 points,” ESPN Stats and Info wrote in an April tweet. “He is also the 1st player to score 30+ points in 20 of his first 40 playoff games since Allen Iverson.”
Though it wasn’t consistent, his scoring ability and playmaking still proved to be a bright spot during the playoffs and the regular season.
But could he match his offensive prowess with his defense?
Where Mitchell excelled on offense, he still left some things to be desired on defense.
During the 2021-22 season, the Jazz gave up 105.2 points per 100 possessions with Donovan Mitchell on the bench and 111.7 points with him on the court, according to The Athletic Staff Writer Kelsey Russo. This year, the Cavaliers had a defensive rating of 106.5 with Mitchell on the bench and 110.4 when he was on the floor.
Mitchell finished the year with a defensive rating of 111.0, according to Statmuse. He completed the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons with ratings of 111.4, the lowest of his career. He did finish the year by tying his career high in steals per game with 1.5. He grabbed four steals on five occasions, including in a 43-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in early December.
Mitchell worked in a defensive system where the guards remained active when their opponents swung the ball on the 3-point arc. The team used a “new urgency” to cut off options on the perimeter if driving players found themselves in a bad situation.
“Cleveland’s guards are doing their part,” ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe wrote in a January article. “When they opened the season defending with new urgency, it was tempting to chalk it up to week one enthusiasm: This will fade.
Mitchell showed he still had plenty he wanted to prove towards the beginning of the season, saying he knew he could defend during a late-September practice.
“It’s not the ability,” he said. “I can play defense; I know that for a fact.
“I haven’t shown that & that’s what I’m looking forward to do here.”
Every one of Cleveland’s players will have something to prove and improve heading into the offseason.
Mitchell at least met the expectations put upon him on offense, shouldering a large part of the team’s scoring attack during the regular season and leading the team in scoring in Games 1, 3 and 5 of the NBA playoffs.
Mitchell will likely have to improve his defense before the Cavs can take the next step forward and push themselves into a long playoff run. He will also have to continue embracing and growing in his Cavs leadership role and being the calming presence he aspired to be at the beginning of the season.
“Be a leader, be a voice, be a calming presence. Kind of like K-Love and Ricky in a sense,” Donovan Mitchell said in October. “When everybody thinks leader, they think of someone who talks the most. But you’ve got to be able to listen. You’ve got to be receptive to what people are saying.”
Either way, Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs still have plenty of time to figure things out.
“It’s not always going to go your way,” Mitchell said following the Game 5 loss to New York, 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.”