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Two days into training camp, the electricity surrounding Cleveland Cavaliers at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the team's practice facility, is palpable. Maybe it was the momentum from last season. Maybe it's the rebrand, setting the team's new gold standard. Maybe it's the new court, which is certainly vibrant. Maybe it's the fact that Donovan Mitchell is in town. Maybe it's just a mix of everything.
Whatever it is, things are different this time around for the Cavaliers. While this team is quite ready to contend for a championship yet, Cleveland has placed the foundation of something truly special. Today, Right Down Euclid will break down some early observations being made about the Cavaliers and share some insight we've gained while in-person at training camp.
Mitchell is embracing Cleveland's core identity early into camp
When the news first broke that the Cavaliers had acquired Mitchell from the Utah Jazz, the prospect of what he could bring on offense was tantalizing. Moreover, Mitchell is also a top-20 player overall and arguably the best for his position in the NBA. It's going to take time for Cleveland to grow and develop this new offensive dichotomy. But, when it starts firing on all cylinders, the Cavaliers could have one of the top offenses in the NBA heading towards the end of the calendar year.
But, the quiet concern in acquiring Mitchell rears its head on the defensive side of the ball. To be frank, Mitchell has not been a reliable defensive player in his nearly half-decade NBA career. Sure, having Rudy Gobert, arguably the greatest rim protector of all time, behind him helped mask a lot of it. But, recency bias is making the quiet whispers about Mitchell's defensive ability become a brassy bellow after the Jazz's playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks.
Luka Doncic took turns alongside the rest of Dallas's perimeter attack picking apart Mitchell in isolation that left his head spinning. Mitchell even admitted as such during his introductory press conference and did so after the first practice of training camp. With that said, when adding a player like Mitchell to the Cavaliers, who pride themselves on being a top defensive unit, there is some cause for concern. Thankfully, early on it seems some of those concerns can be put to rest.
"It’s not the ability,” Mitchell said on Tuesday after Cleveland concluded their first official practice. “I can play defense. I know that for a fact. I haven’t shown that and that is what I’m looking forward to doing here."
Mitchell is right – he does have the ability to be a plus defender for his position. He has a 6'10" wingspan as well as a sturdy frame, which made many think Mitchell would be a plus defender overall coming out of Louisville. But, after having to be asked to do everything on offense for Utah, his energy, as well as his effort, waned on the defensive side of the ball. That's where the negative perception of Mitchell as a defender began and it was only amplified after Utah's debacle against Dallas in the postseason.
But, with so much offensive talent now surrounding him in Cleveland, things should become easier for Mitchell on the other end of the floor. At any level of basketball, defense more than anything hinges on effort. With Mitchell having to expend less energy on offense, naturally, you can assume he's able to hold his own better on defense as well. It'll definitely be something worth watching as the preseason and eventually, the regular season begins. But, so far, Mitchell is carrying the right mentality and embracing his new team's core identity.
"We are here to go 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1,” Mitchell said in regards to Cleveland's defensive ranking. “Finding ways to do that. It starts with the little things – attention to detail, keeping my man in front, being there, making the extra effort to contest. That’s ultimately what my goal is here as one of the leaders on the team. Continue to put forth that effort on both ends."
Figuring out the final spot of the starting five
If you're ever playing poker with him, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff isn't typically one to show his hand. The same can be said in regards to Bickerstaff's tactical planning of Cleveland's roster and depth chart as well. Last season, after acquiring Lauri Markkanen and drafting Evan Mobley, Bickerstaff went with an unconventional move and started Markkanen at small forward. It seemed weird at first but it only became strange if it didn't work. Thankfully, for both Bickerstaff and Cleveland's sake, it did and it became part of a unique offensive identity that the Cavaliers only employed.
Fast forward to this upcoming season and Bickerstaff is now back to the drawing board. Markkanen was sent to Utah as part of the Mitchell trade and now, Cleveland is searching for a new starting small forward. Again, like poker, Bickerstaff isn't showing his hand quite yet. But, two days into things, it appears any and all options are on the table.
"We’re looking for who fits the best,” Bickerstaff said. “What we try to do is put together the best five-man units that we possibly can. We feel like we are a deep team, and your first unit, second unit, third unit once you make your rotations — we’re trying to create as strong of units as we possibly can. It’s not something where we’re gonna rotate it or anything like that. It’s something that we want to put together so guys have an understanding of who they are and where they fit and when their minutes are gonna come. Whoever can help that group be the best on both ends of the floor, that’s the group we’ll put in."
When pressed on who it could be that gives Bickerstaff what he's looking for, again, he's not going to show his hand. It could be literally any wing-like player on the roster. From Isaac Okoro to Caris LeVert all the way down to Dean Wade or even Dylan Windler, in Bickerstaff's eyes, any option is on the table.
In the end, there are different approaches to go about this, and solving it will be something to watch now and all throughout the preseason. Bickerstaff shared with the media on Tuesday and Wednesday that they're going to experiment and try different things to figure out what best pressures opponents on either end of the floor. Bickerstaff did say that the Cavaliers hope to have their started small forward situation solved by the time things open up in Toronto. That's only 20 days away.
New star duo Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell have the makings of the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Their off-court chemistry and how they're used together and apart could take Cleveland to new heights. Photo credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Figuring out the offensive balance in Spida-Land
Leading up to and during training camp, numerous Cleveland players and coaches effused praise on both incumbent star Darius Garland and newcomer Donovan Mitchell. The new duo, which is in search of a nickname to help fuel the t-shirt economy, has the makings of the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Garland's star is still rising after a stellar season last year that netted him All-Star honors. Mitchell's is on its own trajectory as well and the two together have been using camp to already push one another to reach new heights.
"He's a true competitor," said Garland about Mitchell on Wednesday. "He doesn't like to lose and that's one thing I love about him. I mean, I'm a competitor and I don't like to lose. I love to win. So, just having that on the floor with me, I just think that's going to take us over the edge because none of us like to lose."
Off the court, the duo (let's maybe call them Spida-Land?) is close as well. Mitchell and Garland spent time with one another during the offseason, working out and sharpening one another. Soon after the trade was announced, they were plastered all over social media with each other. Last week, they were the honorary team captains for the Cleveland Browns Thursday Night Football win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two are clearly close and having that kind of relationship is only beneficial for all parties involved.
The bond between the two became even more evident. Garland shared with the media during media day that he had secretly hoped Mitchell would join the Cavaliers during those summer workouts. Well, after manifesting that into reality, along with the off-court chemistry, Garland and Mitchell together could take the Cavaliers further than they've been since 2018.
When they share the court together, they can take turns running the offense, with either of them seeing the other getting far easier looks than they've ever had. It'll help satiate Cleveland's hunger for three-pointers, possibly giving them one of the league's best offenses as well. Not only that but, when one sits the other will shine even brighter, with Bickerstaff sharing with the media on Tuesday that the plan for the Cavaliers is to always have one of them on the floor throughout a game.
Granted, it's all not going to be perfect right out the gates for Cleveland. There are going to be growing pains as one of the youngest rosters in the league adds an incredibly established All-Star in Mitchell to the fold. But, with Garland and Mitchell already so close off the court and committed to sharpening each other even before camp began on it, it should be coming sooner instead of later.
Featured image credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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