When the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Donovan Mitchell, everyone thought him fitting in would take time, Mitchell included. It’s understandable why so many felt that way too. Mitchell often found his greatest successes on offense with the Utah Jazz whenever the ball was in his hands. The problem with that is Darius Garland, Mitchell’s new backcourt partner with the Cavaliers, also is at his apex when, like Mitchell, the ball is in his hands.
Having only a training camp and a few preseason appearances to figure it out between Garland and Mitchell, along with fitting star big man tandem Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley into the mix, seemed like it was going to be hard to figure out all at once. Some thought that this trade would force Cleveland to crumble under the weight of their new-found expectations. There were even some onlookers who thought that they gave up too much for Mitchell in the process, calling it one of the most overrated trades in franchise history.
Thankfully, for Cleveland’s sake, none of us covering the team or going through our feelings don’t work in an NBA front office since the preconceived notions surrounding the addition of Mitchell couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, there are times that things have looked bumpy at times figuring out the balance between Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen. Again, that was to be expected and probably won’t stabilize until after the holiday season. Instead, one thing has emerged through the early beginnings of the season: Mitchell is by and far the Cavaliers’ most valuable player and, at this point, should be in consideration for NBA MVP as well.
Sure, a lot of that can be attributed to the Cavaliers copying a lot of what worked for Mitchell with the Jazz and letting him cook. But, a lot of that happened without Garland on the floor due to Cleveland’s starting point guard suffering an inner eye laceration on opening night. Since Garland has returned to the floor, you’ve seen some of the warts still being ironed out between Mitchell and Garland on offense but they’ve still been jointly productive. In five games together, the duo is averaging 49.6 points per game and 14.0 assists per game all while connecting on 37.1% of their three-point attempts combined. When taking them at face value, those numbers are staggering. But, when given a bit more context, it begins to further crystalize Mitchell’s early MVP consideration.
In the five games Mitchell and Garland have played together since the latter’s return from injury, Garland is averaging 18.6 points on 36.1% shooting along with 9.4 assists in 37.8 minutes per game. Mitchell, meanwhile, is putting up 31.0 points on 53.3% shooting as well as 5.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.0 steals in 39.2 minuters per game. When looking at them individually, you’re seeing a ton of thunder from Mitchell’s scoring and, subsequently, plenty of lightning from Garland’s playmaking as well. The biggest highlight of the two spending time on the floor together came against the Boston Celtics the other night, where Cleveland clawed out a win in overtime.
To be clear: this is no disrespect to Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto or any of the other co-guards Mitchell played with in Utah. But, with Mitchell in Cleveland alongside Garland, he has never had something quite like this in his star-studded NBA career. It’s allowed Mitchell to accelerate to a new gear many thought he didn’t have and become disruptive on either end of the floor. That new level Mitchell has reached fits in beautifully with the Cavaliers’ core mantra of defense leading to offense. This impact has also helped further level up his offensive motor, something Mitchell has always specialized in from the moment he came to the NBA.
Mitchell’s motor burning red hot to start the year was one of the blessings in disguise with Garland’s injury. Even after Garland returned Mitchell’s drive didn’t cooled off at all – it’s only gotten hotter. During Cleveland’s west coast road trip, you saw the beginning of the Cavaliers starting a four-game losing skid. Sure, that certainly takes away some of Mitchell’s thunder in his MVP case. But, when further breaking down the losses, things are actually more amplified than before.
Against the Los Angeles Clippers when Garland struggled to find his shot, Mitchell shined – putting up 30 points on hyper-efficient shooting from all over the floor and nearly stole a win. Two nights later against the Sacramento Kings, meanwhile, Garland had his worst game of the season where he had 6 points on 11.1% shooting. If that were to happen last season, it would’ve likely resulted in a blowout. But, with Mitchell on the roster, things were different. Mitchell wasn’t as efficient compared to his performance against the Clippers but, he was vital in keeping this game close for Cleveland against Sacramento with his 38 points on a blistering 57.1% shooting.
The trend continued where when Garland struggled, Mitchell kept trying his damndest to lead the Cavaliers to victory against the Golden State Warriors as well. Mitchell nearly had a triple double by scoring 29 points on 50.0% shooting along with 10 rebounds and 9 assists. Play after play down the stretch Mitchell would not let the Cavaliers lay down and give up like they might have in years prior. He’s hardwired to win, no matter what, and will carry his team on a nightly basis if he has to.
“He continues to impress,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff about Mitchell to Right Down Euclid. “But the thing that stands out the most to me is just his determination and his phsyical and mental toughness when the game’s on the line. He’s got a will to win that’s not matched by many. And when he’s tired, whatever it may be, he finds a way to get his legs and shot and finds a way to be physical and finds a way to come up with a huge defensive rebound. That is mental toughness and that’s why guys like that are who they are. I consider him one of those of guys.”
Mind you, it isn’t just a typical situation of a coach hyping up his player either. Bickerstaff is an NBA lifer and doesn’t effuse praise like that often due to his appreciation of the history of the game. But, clearly, after getting an opportunity to coach Mitchell he sees something special growing. Bickerstaff shared with Right Down Euclid that Mitchell and his motor to James Harden – another MVP-caliber player Bickerstaff coached while with the Houston Rockets. Again, that isn’t just praise Bickerstaff is handing out because he coaches Mitchell. There’s always been an MVP-caliber player there, it just took Mitchell joining a better situation where everyone likes each other in order to reach that level.
Granted, there will always be naysayers towards Mitchell’s case as well as legitimate competition to the dynamic guard’s claim. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic has been stellar for the Denver Nuggets, leading them to a 9-4 record. But, maybe voter fatigue opens the gates for others – like Boston’s Jayson Tatum or Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid or Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic. The thing is, Mitchell has already gotten the better of Tatum twice already this season. Sure, that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things of individual rewards but wins can play a part. As it stands, Mitchell has two overtime victories over Tatum this season, with two more tilts coming in early March.
As time goes on, Mitchell will have shots at proving his claim over the likes of Jokic or Embiid or Doncic. Thankfully, for Mitchell, his MVP claim as well as the Cavaliers, Cleveland doesn’t face these players nor their teams until later on in the season. That means there’s a very good chance Mitchell, Garland and the rest of the Cavaliers start reaching new heights on offense together. If you consider that, along with how hot Mitchell has been continuously to start the season, then him winning MVP doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.