The Cleveland Cavaliers’ start to the 2022 season is even hotter than last year’s 9-5 mark that caught a lot of hoops heads off guard. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in 2021, the Cavs made the play-in, were 12 games over .500 at the All-Star break, and were on schedule to finish with a top-five record in the East.
Then-rookie Evan Mobley and first-year All-Star Darius Garland didn’t need the customary few months to build chemistry, breaking out in tandem. Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen, Ricky Rubio, and the rest of the supposing cast provided great defense and enough punch to make Cleveland fans hopeful for a promising postseason appearance.
Then, as they tend to do to young teams unfamiliar with how to handle adversity, injuries ravaged the second half, and the Cavs ended up getting bounced in the play-in games with losses to Brooklyn and Atlanta. The organization could’ve rolled it back with mostly the same roster and the notion that a fully healthy team will make a leap after its first time going through a full season.
That wasn’t the case as the front office slow-played its interest in Donovan Mitchell like a poker player who flopped a full boat and waited for the other people at the table to show their hands. The price for the sixth-year guard, three-time All-Star was more than New York was willing to give up, but they didn’t have the infrastructure that’s in place in Cleveland.
While it’s still early, the Cavs are 6-1 with Garland only having played 13 minutes before Wednesday night due to a poke in the eye on opening night against Toronto. And in his return to the lineup against the reigning Eastern Conference champs, the fourth-year guard out of Vanderbilt had 29 and 12 assists, and the team looked like a legit threat to make the ECF if not the Finals in a 114-113 OT win over Boston that was one of the games of the season thus far.
However, this article is not about Garland or overreacting to a W on Nov. 3. It’s about how the team navigated its first bit of turbulence better than their fans could’ve hoped.
I don’t want to have to keep reiterating that the stats I’m about to present to you don’t include last night, so I’m telling you now that the stats I’m about to rattle off are in the timespan that Garland more or less missed, which was before Wednesday night.
Led by Mitchell’s 32 points per game on 49-45-85 shooting splits, the offense was seventh in the league in scoring at 117 points per outing. The defense, a big question mark considering the Jazz’s turnstile play style with the undersized guard the past couple seasons, also was exemplary, holding opponents to the second-lowest scoring output in the NBA at 105 points per game.
The Cavs had the best point differential in all of basketball, too, outscoring teams by an average of 12 points per game. Caris LeVert stepped into Garland’s spot in the starting five and was his usual erratic self with flashes of brilliance. He’s had games of 10, 14, 10, 12, 1, and 41, but it didn’t matter much. Even Kevin Love felt up to playing again after pleading for a trade to Portland in 2019.
It didn’t take long for Mitchell to establish himself as the team’s best option, and that was partly facilitated by Garland’s absence. The issue when Garland returns, if there is one, is will the defense continue to be as ornery with two 6-foot-1 guards heading up the backcourt. (They held the Celtics below their season average, and that included an extra five minutes to get there.)
Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been starting two power forwards and a center in Allen, Mobley, and Dean Wade in the front court, and that lineup of Mitchell-LeVert-Wade-Allen-Mobley has been their most used five this season. One would think playing that big to compensate for deficiencies on the perimeter would hinder the offense, and you’d be wrong.
The versatility of Mobley and the shooting of Wade have prevented defenses from packing the paint and ruining the team’s spacing. There’s some regression in Wade’s future as he can’t possibly continue to hit 65 percent of his 3s on four attempts per game, yet even a 20-point drop in percentage points would rank him among the top guys at that volume. (He was 0-3 from deep against Boston, so yup.) The threat from Dean and LeVert has allowed Mitchell to continue to flourish in the pick-and-roll as he’s been one of the best PNR ball handlers in the NBA during his career.
The concern is the overlapping strengths of the Mitchell-Garland tandem, and the degree to which both can adjust and thrive off the ball. While Garland was top 10 in the league running the PNR a season ago, his 3-point percentage dropped from 40 percent off the bounce to 35 percent when shooting off the catch. Mitchell’s gap from pull-ups to catch-and-shoot is 20 points lower as it stands this year (53 to 33), and I guess that’s something to track.
Having said that, there are worse problems to have than how to integrate a well-rounded All-Star into a rotation that’s blasting the rest of the league. And after watching the two coexist with Mitchell feeding Garland’s hot hand early, and taking over himself late with 11 of his 25 in the fourth and OT, Cavs’ fans have to be 13 levels above ecstatic about their team’s potential.
The regular season is a procession of tests for teams to pass, and thus far, after seven games and a pop quiz, Cleveland has aced all of them.