Once the final buzzer sounded after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 112-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns, they had finally completed their forty-first game of the NBA’s regular season. Sure, the number of games played might seem insignificant initially, but technically speaking, Cleveland is through the halfway point of the season. Usually, the midway point is indicated after the annual All-Star break. But, that doesn’t quite work for today’s story so we’re just going to ignore the elephant in the room.
Considering that the Cavaliers woke up on Monday morning 26-15 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, it’s not a bad place to be all things considered. Heading into this NBA season, there was expected to be a lot of growing pains for Cleveland after they added Donovan Mitchell to a somewhat flawed roster. Today, we’re going to break down what has (and hasn’t) been working for the Cavaliers up to this point.
What’s working halfway through?
The seamless fit between Mitchell and Company ™
When Cleveland acquired Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz over the summer, there were naturally some concerns about the fit. Mind you, it isn’t the overall long-term fit since, frankly, the Cavaliers are too talented to fail. Adding in Mitchell, arguably the best overall at his position would just make Cleveland even more explosive when things were clicking.
But, to get to that point, there were going to have to be some growing pains for both Mitchell and the Cavaliers. During his time with the Jazz, things were at their best whenever Mitchell had the ball in his hands more often than not. Mind you, that’s no shade to the talent surrounding Mitchell in Utah. It’s just more or less the product of the system and what made the Jazz go 218-127 when Mitchell was there. It even saw Utah reach the playoffs multiple times as well and rank toward the top of the league in nearly every offensive or defensive metric.
Clearly, something was working with Mitchell during his time with the Jazz and when he came to the Cavaliers he was expected to give Cleveland a similar boost. The problem is that it wasn’t going to happen overnight since Darius Garland, Mitchell’s backcourt co-star, saw massive success last season with the offense flowing through him and having the ball in his hands more often than not. Mitchell and Garland, along with the rest of the Cavaliers, would have to learn how to co-exist on the floor and that’s where the quiet concern about growing pains came to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The thing is, those concerns should’ve remained quiet based on how Cleveland has looked on the floor with Mitchell. Sure, Darius Garland missing a healthy portion of the start of the season forced the rest of the roster to get comfortable with Mitchell much more quickly. But, the fit when the team is nearly fully healthy is almost seamless much sooner than expected. Having that comfort level has allowed Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to always have one of Mitchell or Garland on the floor at any given time and has given Cleveland a bit of an edge offensively on a nightly basis. Sure, the Cavaliers will always be a defense-first team at the end of the day. But, with an offensive rating of 113.9, Cleveland has shown that they can be one of the most balanced teams overall in the league.
With 41 games to go still, it’s going to be exciting to see what the overall final product is for the Cavaliers this season. At the end of the day, a lot of the credit should go to Mitchell and finding ways to acclimate to what Cleveland’s building rather than forcing the Cavaliers to fit him. That dynamism Mitchell has showcased has been huge for Cleveland halfway through the season and it also leads us to our next point on what’s working for the Cavaliers so far this season.
Donovan Mitchell is Cleveland’s MVP this season
It’s been said at length on this website and elsewhere up to to the halfway point. But, at the end of the day, Donovan Mitchell has been Cleveland’s MVP on a nightly basis and makes a fairly compelling argument for league MVP as well. To take it a step further, let’s put it this way: Mitchell is the greatest player to wear a Cavaliers uniform since LeBron James last did it during the 2017-18 season. If you watch Cleveland hoops on a nightly basis, you know that this isn’t hyperbole either. But, if you need a refresher, let’s break down what Mitchell has done in his first 36 appearances with the Cavaliers.
There’s the fact that Mitchell is personally having the best year of his career statistically since joining Cleveland. He’s scored 41 or more points on four separate occasions and also had a season-high 12 assists in a recent 38-point outing against the New York Knicks. There’s also the fact that Mitchell made NBA history just last week, scoring 71 points against the Chicago Bulls, scoring 55 of them in the second half and overtime.
Night in and night out, Mitchell has been the heart and soul of the Cavaliers and has claimed the mantle as the team’s best overall player. Sure, folks in Cleveland’s front office would tell you ten times out of ten they would make the trade with Utah to acquire Mitchell. But, when the agreement first went down, nobody would’ve expected this to happen for both Mitchell and the Cavaliers.
What’s not working halfway through?
The rotating door at starting small forward
Several players have gotten their chance to audition for Cleveland’s starting small forward spot halfway through the season. First, it was Caris LeVert but due to defensive issues as well as LeVert not getting enough shot opportunities, he was benched in favor of Lamar Stevens after roughly 20 games. Once it became clear Stevens was overmatched playing 30-plus minutes a night, the Cavaliers turned to Isaac Okoro to try things out. Okoro has been showing results as of late but it’s also too early to say he’s a surefire answer either.
It’s also worth noting that Dean Wade, who has been dealing with a left shoulder injury, has been used as Cleveland’s starting small forward as well. Wade, along with everyone else that’s tried, has provided unique auditions halfway through the year but there’s one throughline that’s clear: all of them are flawed and not the permanent answer as the starting small forward.
The problem is, the answer also isn’t currently on the Cavaliers roster or depth chart either. It’s been reported and league sources confirm that it’s going to be something that Cleveland addresses at or around the annual trade deadline. But, those same sources have said that the Cavaliers won’t make a trade just for the sake of making it. Cleveland also wants to see how things look with Ricky Rubio back as well. But, until that happens, the starting three spot is going to remain a blemish on what’s shaping up to be a pretty solid start to the season at the halfway point for the Cavaliers.
There’s no place like home for the Cavaliers
After their win over the Phoenix Suns that got them past the halfway point, Cleveland improved to 8-11 on the road this year. Within the confines of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, meanwhile, the Cavaliers are 18-4, which is the best in the Eastern Conference and one of the best in the NBA. Remember how the lack of on-court growing pains between Mitchell and company was a plus for Cleveland? Well, the growing pains of figuring out how to win in hostile environments are without a doubt a minus for the Cavaliers.
More often than not, Cleveland’s players give a ton of credit to their fans at home for bringing the energy every night. The Cavaliers can use that momentum to frontrun opponents, so Cleveland is flat-out dominant at times at home. But, for whatever reason, the Cavaliers go from a carriage to a pumpkin whenever they leave Cleveland and it’s still something that befuddles players, coaches, analysts and everything in between.
So, that’s why Cleveland is still growing up in real time. Sure, they’re starting to find ways to win on the road but every time the Cavaliers get strong wins over teams like the Suns, there are stinkers like the performances against the Milwaukee Bucks or Denver Nuggets peppered in as well. It’s going to remain a process for Cleveland but, at the end of the day, when you’re halfway through the season hopefully, you figure it out before the playoffs come knocking.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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