The Cleveland Cavaliers’ successful 51-win regular season ended with a disastrous postseason loss to an underwhelming New York Knicks team. The loss has understandably caused Cleveland to address their lack of spacing by adding Max Strus and Georges Niang. While helpful, those moves don’t answer key questions about this team’s overall direction. Are the Cavaliers trying to compete for championships during Donovan Mitchell or Evan Mobley’s prime?
Mitchell is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in points (28.3) and effective field goal percentage (57.2%). He did this by becoming a bonafide three-level scorer as he had career-high shooting percentages from the rim (68.2%), the midrange (48.8%), and from beyond the arc (38.6%). All three are elite numbers for his position. His scoring prowess was good enough to earn him an All-NBA Second Team selection while having a valid argument for making the first team.
Age 27 and 28 seasons are largely considered a player’s physical prime. Those are the ages we saw LeBron James and Michael Jordan win their first two titles, Kobe Bryant put up his best scoring seasons, and the age Magic Johnson won when he won his first MVP. Most recently, Nikola Jokić won the title during his age-28 season. This has been a common trend throughout NBA history.
This, combined with what we saw last season, would lead you to believe that the best two seasons of Mitchell’s career should be this upcoming season and the 2024-25 campaign. Cleveland will have Mitchell under contract for both before his player option for the ’25-26 season.
All-NBA-level talent doesn’t grow on trees. Mitchell is only the fifth-ever Cavalier to make an All-NBA team. As good as the team hopes Mobley and Darius Garland will be in their primes, there’s no certainty that either will be among the overall best players for their position.
There’s a valid argument that the roster’s core pieces don’t help Mitchell do what he does best. Mitchell doesn’t have the innate ability to read defenses on pick-and-rolls and find his bigs for easy dunks like Garland. While Mitchell isn’t someone who’s shown he can run an offense, he also isn’t a good off-ball mover which limits his effectiveness when Garland runs the offense. The same can be true about Garland’s off-ball movement.
If you were starting to build a team from scratch around Mitchell, this isn’t what you’d create. You’d want a versatile defensive big who could cover up various issues defensively while holding his own on the other end with a bevy of shooting and a point guard who could run the offense and work well off-ball. A starting lineup featuring Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro aren’t players that give Mitchell the freedom he needs.
Even though Mitchell is extremely talented and a premier shooting guard, the two-guard typically isn’t the position the best player on a championship team typically plays. The last three shooting guards to be the best player on a title team are Kobe Bryant (’09 and ’10), Dwyane Wade (’06), and Michael Jordan. While it’s reductive to look at it this way, it does illustrate how rare it is for a shooting guard to be this impactful to wins and losses.
The league has shifted away from the super team era that dominated LeBron’s prime. The team with the best playoff player has won the championship in the last five years. Each player had an excellent supporting cast that helped accent their strengths while limiting their individual weaknesses. This should continue given the new salary cap measures to break up super teams.
While some teams break the mold of being either a super team or having the best playoff player, those teams come around once every few decades, and we haven’t seen one since the ’04 Detroit Pistons. Teams like the ’20 and ’23 Miami Heat and to a lesser degree the ’21 Phoenix Suns can get close to breaking that mold, but they can’t get across the finish line.
This is the problem the Cavaliers find themselves in. They don’t have a team optimizing their best player while also not having a team with multiple All-NBA level talents. At least not for the next few seasons unless Garland or Mobley take drastic leaps.
A dominant big leading a title team is much more common. Mobley has shown that he already is one of the best defensive players in the league, but it’s fair to wonder if the offensive ability ever catches up to allow him to be a truly dominant big on both ends. It’s much more likely Mobley will follow Jaren Jackson Jr. and Bam Adebayo’s career paths than he follows Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan’s.
Even then, by the time Mobley enters his eighth season, Mitchell will be 32 and likely on the downward arc of his career. For context, Damian Lillard was 32 last season. That’s assuming Mitchell will still be on the team that far down the road.
The Cavaliers have built a nucleus with a long runway of being competitive but might never get the stars to align for a true title contender. The simplest way to fix that would be to go all in on building around Mitchell or Mobley, but not both concurrently.
At the end of the day, Koby Altman’s goal is to build the best possible basketball team he can. The Cavaliers are poised for another 50-win season and are set up for far more playoff success this upcoming season and beyond. But the chips might be too spread out over multiple seasons to have a legitimate championship window.
Covering sports has been a dream of Jackson’s ever since he became old enough to realize playing professionally wasn’t an option. He’s been writing about the Cavaliers for various sites, like King James Gospel and Fear the Sword, and has covered the Cleveland Charge since the 2021-22 season. Jackson also co-hosts The Junkyard Pod with Right Down Euclid’s Tony Pesta.
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