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When Darius Garland went down due to Gary Trent Jr.'s recklessness, anyone associated with the Cleveland Cavaliers held their breath. Last season, whenever Garland sat due to injury or illness, the Cavaliers were outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions and were 7-7 overall without him. Cleveland's offense just didn't function without Garland on the floor last season. So, understandably, when their All-Star guard fell to the floor of Scotiabank Arena, flashbacks to last season were on full display.
But, unlike last year, there's also a different x-factor on the floor next to Garland this season in Donovan Mitchell. Mind you, this is no disrespect to Collin Sexton or Ricky Rubio or Caris LeVert or any of the other members of the 2021-22 Cavaliers. It's just that Mitchell is different compared to the others and is a grade above anyone else.
While Garland has been down, Cleveland has turned to Mitchell time and again to shoulder the load offensively. Instead of shying away from it, Mitchell has more than embraced it for the Cavaliers. In a close loss to the Toronto Raptors, Mitchell scored or assisted on 52 of Cleveland's 105 points. In their win over the Bulls, meanwhile, the Cavaliers saw Mitchell contribute 49 of Cleveland's 128 points through either scoring on his own or passing to his teammates. Finally, in the Cavaliers' season-opening win over the Washington Wizards, Mitchell dropped 48 points through scoring and assists combined.
“When you’re on the outside looking in, and his time in Utah, he’s always played with another lead guard, so to speak, but he’s got point guard instincts with the ability to score the ball at an elite level,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid. “He knows how to play the game. You watch small things like the passes that he makes to his teammates are right where the passes should be. Very rarely do you see a guy have to reach or turn his hands upside down when Donovan is making those plays.
"I’ve been impressed with it, to be honest with you. A lot of guys who are scorers, that’s just what they are. But Donovan is a playmaker, and the scoring just happens to be the right play at the time, and he’s able to make those plays.”
During his time with the Utah Jazz, Mitchell showcased an ability to play on his own without a point guard beside him. Instead of just having his offensive contributions become a product of the environment, Mitchell evolved to become the environment itself. Sure, he's only had three games overall with the Cavaliers, but you're seeing similar results. Without Garland on the floor, Mitchell is averaging 34.5 points per game on 45.8% shooting and is connecting on 50% of his 9.0 three-point attempts per game. Mitchell is also adding in 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per contest as well.
Although his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers so far has been brief, Donovan Mitchell has been on a historic tear to open the season. Image credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images
Cleveland has found a formula for success with Mitchell at the center of it. Spread the floor, run endless pick and rolls and off-ball screens and continuously look for clean looks on the interior or on the perimeter. This offensive dichotomy has proven successful so far, with the Cavaliers leading the NBA in three-point percentage despite only being ranked 25th overall in three-point attempts per game. The team is also fifth in offensive rating in the league overall as well, averaging 117.9 points per 100 possessions.
Helping Mitchell wreak havoc offensively are his fellow co-stars Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. With Garland out and Mitchell running the show, Allen is averaging 11.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Mobley, meanwhile, is chipping in 13.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. While Mitchell is the primary hub on offense, Allen and Mobly have been running the shown on defense. But, with Mitchell also commanding so much attention on the perimeter, Allen and Mobley have been able to contribute on the interior as well, benefiting from some pretty clean looks.
“He’s just a good dude,” Allen said. “That’s what it boils down to. He is easy to talk to. He doesn’t boast about his accomplishments. He is one of the hardest workers every single game and in the gym. It’s easy to root for a guy like that and easy to follow somebody’s lead like that.”
Having Mitchell out there to carry things without Garland also helped key roleplayers on Cleveland's roster as well. Dean Wade is averaging 8.5 points per game and is connecting on 60.0% of his three-point attempts. Kevin Love, meanwhile, is averaging 10.0 points per game and is also hitting 60.0% of his three-pointers. Finally, Cedi Osman is averaging 15.5 points per game and has connected on 62.5% of his three-point attempts.
With or without Garland, these numbers for Cleveland will likely regress to the mean and balance out as the season goes on. But, with Garland out, the Cavaliers have found a new depth and several new dimensions as well within their offense through Mitchell. They've found a new way to hurt opposing defenses and, more importantly, have found a more seamless way to have their new star in Mitchell find his fit within the environment he's helped build.
Now, more than anything, Cleveland can focus on finding the proper balance between Mitchell and Garland when they're back on the floor together. It's going to take time and there will be some growing pains along the way. But, through the early season chaos, the Cavaliers have found something in Mitchell carrying the load offensively. Even when Garland returns, Cleveland needs to keep letting Mitchell cook like this on offense. It's only going to continue providing positive results and, in turn, wins.
Maybe those MVP chants fans were belting out during the home opener won't be too far-fetched either.
Featured image credit: Cole Burston/Getty Images
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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