You’ll see coaches wearing a shirt unique to the team whenever the Cleveland Cavaliers are practicing or warming up prior to a game. Sure, they have a combination of the team’s new colorway, but, it also features a common phrase from head coach J.B. Bickerstaff that’s become the team’s mantra – “Win The Scrap”.
The scrap itself is that on any given night, the Cavaliers will win the battle in front of them. Every basket. Every rebound. Every quarter. Every half. No matter what it is, Bickerstaff expects his players to impose their will, win or lose.
“It’s going out there, ready to battle,” said Darius Garland after Wednesday’s shootaround. “It’s going to be a dogfight. … Just trying to be physical and be the most physical team on the floor. Going out there to compete at the highest level.”
At their core, Cleveland is a defensive-first team. Last season, the Cavaliers were a top-five defensive in terms of defensive rating unit thanks, in part, to the dominant interior presence of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Sure, the defensive resurgence was somewhat sudden for Cleveland considering they were twenty-fifth in defensive rating the year prior. But, more than anything it’s setting the foundation for what could be again one of the top teams defensively this upcoming season.
Of course, there will be some growing pains no matter what but, again, the potential is there. It’s safe to assume that there will be a fairly substantial leap from both Allen and Mobley when protecting the interior. But, with both players showing their stripes last season defending the perimeter, along with some steady support from Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens, could accelerate things to where the Cavaliers are at currently. Granted, it won’t happen right away but, there is a very real chance that by the time Cleveland is heading into the All-Star Break that they’re the no. 1 defensive team in the league.
That’s all well and good but, obviously, defense is only one side of the game for any team, the Cavaliers included. Sure, Cleveland could spend a lot of their time this season grinding their opponents into dust and turning every game into a rock fight. In fact, the Cavaliers won several games like that last season.
But, anyone in today’s modern NBA knows that’s not sustainable. Last season, Cleveland was either average or slightly below average as a team offensively across the board. They were twentieth in offensive rating. Fifteenth in three-point percentage. Twenty-first in three-point attempts. Twenty-fifth in points per game.
The only spot offensively where the Cavaliers broke the top ten was in overall field goal percentage – where they ranked eighth overall. But a lot of that can be attributed to their two strongest points of attack on defense. Allen connected on 67.7% of his total attempts last season, which was second-best in the league. Mobley, meanwhile, was a few spots behind at twenty-second overall, connecting on 50.8% of his attempts overall last year.
Taking that into consideration, it makes sense why Cleveland decided to go all-in and get a thermonuclear bomb this offseason in Donovan Mitchell. A lot of folks will argue that the Cavaliers already had a Mitchell of their own at home in Collin Sexton.
The thing is they actually didn’t.
Cleveland Cavaliers star big man Jarrett Allen has become a vital anchor on defense. He’s also a key reason why Cleveland was only a top team in one offensive category. Photo credit: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
What Mitchell brings to the table is what Cleveland ultimately always needed from Sexton. But, with so much uncertainty surrounding Sexton’s viability this season, along with the fact Mitchell is arguably the best player at his position is going to unlock so much more for what was once a fairly anemic offense.
Last year, Mitchell attempted the third-most three-pointers per game at 9.8 and connected on 35.5% of them. Cavaliers All-Star guard Darius Garland, meanwhile, took the most three-pointers for Cleveland last season at 6.7 per game and connected on 38.3% of them. If you include Kevin Love, who took the second most three-pointers for Cleveland, as well, it gives a roadmap to where the team can become a more legitimate threat from everywhere on the floor on offense.
This is now especially true considering the Cavaliers can put both Mitchell and Garland on the floor together to start the game and set the tone early. There are already glimpses during preseason play, with Garland and Mitchell comfortably playing off one another, bending the collective will of opposing defenses thanks to their individual three-point gravity. It’s opened up passing lanes and easier looks, something neither player has truly had in their NBA career.
In their third preseason game, a win over the Atlanta Hawks, you could see the full potential of the pairing when Mitchell drove to the basket with the defense collapsing on him. Mitchell then found Garland, who had drifted to the perimeter, after initially passing to a streaking Mitchell in the first place. Garland had a clean look, swished it, and again, gave us a glimpse of what’s to come for this Cavaliers team.
“To be honest with you, I’ve never had a dynamic threat like that for real,” said Garland about Mitchell after Monday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I think we’re good. We can be much better, I will say that,” said Mitchell after Wednesday’s game. “I wouldn’t say we’re in a bad place, I think we’re in a really good place and can continue to build.”
Clearly, Mitchell is going to unlock things for Cleveland on the perimeter. But he isn’t that one-dimensional either. Early into training camp, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff shared with Right Down Euclid that he wanted to run units where Mitchell was acting in Garland’s place as the lead guard. It’s something that Mitchell found success with in Utah and it’ll naturally build familiarity and comfort in a new environment.
It’s also something that the Cavaliers can use to ensure that they always have one of Mitchell or Garland on the floor at any given moment. Bickerstaff wants to empower Mitchell to utilize his multifaceted array of offensive skills and it more so comes to premonition when the ball is in his hands.
“When you have a coach that wants the ball in your hands and can trust you, that’s where the comfortability comes in,” said Mitchell to Right Down Euclid. “… I do enjoy that. I do enjoy having the ball in my hands, obviously. I mean, who wouldn’t? I feel like I can do both playing off DG but when DG’s in, it’s his show.”
Finding that balance will be important for Mitchell, Garland and the Cavaliers as a whole. It’s going to take time and there are bound to be growing pains early into the season. More often than not, Cleveland’s defense will be the side of the spectrum pushing the teams to victory early in the season. Mitchell said as much to Right Down Euclid during training camp.
But, when things start to fire on offense between this star-studded duo, it’ll have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense as well for Cleveland. The perimeter game will open things up on the interior for Allen and Mobley to work. In turn, the pressure they create at the rim will give the myriad of roleplayers on the outside, along with Mitchell and Garland, easier looks as well.
“We have the potential to be a really balanced team on both ends of the floor,” said Mitchell to Right Down Euclid last week. “I think we’re a really good defensive team and our offense will continue to build and get there. We have the potential to be really good on both sides of the ball but we got to go out there and do the work.”
Once everything falls into place the spots where the Cavaliers struggled last season will naturally improve. When you couple that in with an already elite defense, Cleveland now has the potential to become one of the most, if not the most, complete teams in the NBA – especially when they connect the common thread between both sides of the ball. Again, it’s not going to happen overnight for the Cavaliers. But, the potential is there for the team to live up to their mantra and win the scrap on either end of the floor any given night.
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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