After missing out on the playoffs last season due to being eliminated in the Play-In Tournament, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ brass made a concerted effort to avoid being in that same position for the foreseeable future by trading for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell.
With a young core that’s under contract for at least the next three to four years, Cleveland is poised to usher in a new era of Cavaliers basketball. Since the 1997-98 season, the franchise has not been to the playoffs without LeBron James on the roster, however, with the acquisition of Mitchell, the Cavaliers are set up to break the drought.
Competing in a crowded East
Only 10 games separated the No. 1 and the No. 10 seed in the East last season, compared to the West, where 30 games separated the aforementioned seeds. Every game matters of course, but it’s especially true and no one knows that better than the Cavaliers.
Up to March 6 of last season, the Cavaliers were sitting comfortably as the sixth seed, but after defensive anchor, Jarrett Allen, suffered a fractured finger and missed the rest of the regular season, the Cavaliers fell into the Play-In Tournament picture. With what looks to be a more competitive Eastern Conference next season, the Cavaliers will have their work cut out for them again.
The addition of Mitchell will be a big boost to an offense that averaged the sixth-least points per game last season at 107.7. Mitchell’s coming off a season where he averaged 25.9 points a game on 44.8% shooting from the floor and 35.5% from three.
Alongside Darius Garland, he’ll be another offensive option that’s great at creating his own shot and can get the Cavaliers a bucket when they’re desperate for one, particularly in the playoffs.
Mitchell has averaged 28.3 points a game in the 39 playoff games he has appeared in and will be an integral part to a Cavaliers squad that lacks playoff experience.
Even with the offensive repertoire that Mitchell brings, his defensive deficiencies have popped up more and more in the past couple of seasons. Mitchell has the athleticism and wingspan at 6-foot-10 to be a solid defender, so Cleveland is hoping that his defensive performance in the playoffs last season was a major outlier.
If Mitchell is unable to overcome some of his defensive issues, the Cavaliers have a more than apt frontcourt with Allen and Evan Mobley to help mask some of those problems. Last season, Allen’s defensive field goal percentage was on par with Mitchell’s former teammate, Rudy Gobert, so he should bring a lot of the same rim presence that Gobert did. Mobley is a more versatile defender with his 7-foot-4 wingspan and can guard any position the bulk of the time.
The Allen-Mobley duo will be key for this team, especially if they are unable to get consistent defense out of the guard positions. Even the small forward position is a bit of a question mark going into the season. In 2020, the Cavaliers drafted Isaac Okoro with the fifth pick, and so far, he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Okoro was drafted for what he could do on the defensive side of the ball, but has been fairly average in his first two years. On top of that, his offensive game was raw coming out of Auburn and his shooting numbers haven’t inspired the most confidence. He’s a career 31.5% shooter from three, but maybe he’ll be able to focus on that part of his game more with the addition of Mitchell.
If the Cavaliers are unable to get persistent shotmaking and defense from the small forward position, there’s a chance that it becomes a real issue for the team. There aren’t any 3-and-D options left in free agency, so the Cavaliers will most likely need to find a trade partner that is willing to give up that type of asset if Okoro doesn’t live up to expectations.
On paper, this is one of the best rosters Cleveland has constructed and permitting health, they have a roster that could make some serious noise come playoff time.