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Donovan Mitchell’s Career Reset Is Off To A Roaring Start

Because Donovan Mitchell is so obviously talented, greatness means something different for him. It’s something Mitchell can take pride in, that he’s risen to a level where he is measured just as much by team success and the performance of his teammates as he is his individual achievements. But judging him on that scale, Mitchell missed the mark last season.

Mitchell has said the 2021-22 campaign was one of his most disappointing seasons ever, and it’s not hard to see why. The Utah Jazz won 49 games. He scored 26 points a night. In spite of this, the team flamed out in the first round. The Dallas Mavericks, which did not have Luka Doncic for the first three games of the series due to a calf injury, ended Utah’s season as deep-seeded narratives engulfed the team: Mitchell will not pass to Rudy Gobert, the Jazz chased Danny Ainge to run — and potentially blow up — the team.

This makes it all the more impressive to watch Mitchell now, in his first year in Cleveland after a big offseason trade. Not only is he off to a torrid start as a scorer (with 31 points per game and 50 percent shooting from the field) and as a closer (with the most points in the clutch in the NBA so far), but Mitchell is elevating the team around him to be their best.

Utah was better when Mitchell was on the bench in the two regular season following the 2020 Bubble, per Cleaning the Glass. Through 11 games with Cleveland, however, Mitchell-centric lineups are annihilating the opposition. Mitchell is playing an astounding 39.2 minutes per game, creating offense like few others in the league, and competing like someone who has a chip on his shoulder on the heels of a high-profile trade. Depending on what stat you look at, Mitchell is anywhere from a top-five to top-20 most valuable player in the league through the first three weeks of the season.

An overtime game against Boston on Nov. 2 saw Mitchell go toe-to-toe with Jayson Tatum in crunch time before making a winning play that had nothing to do with putting the ball in the basket: a soaring rebound to end a Boston possession late. Mitchell is playing off the ball more, with about as many touches per game as last season while taking far fewer shots per 36 minutes. He’s also getting up the most catch-and-shoot 3s of his career as he adjusts to a tandem with Darius Garland, which is still a work in progress. He can lay off and still make an impact, or he can catch fire and drive the bus home.

It’s clear this team suits Mitchell better than the Jazz did by the end. He and Garland, who missed several games early with an eye injury, can be prone to trading possessions and don’t pass to each other often, but a feeling-out process was to be expected. Both are ball-dominant players, but by all accounts have a solid relationship and have bought into making this work. They are also two of the best shooters in the league and willing passers. They are each the most talented guard the other has played alongside.

We only have to look a few hundred miles south to Atlanta for a picture of how a Mitchell-Garland backcourt can work. While Cavs lineups with both star guards have struggled, the Hawks are outscoring opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions when Trae Young and Dejounte Murray share the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Perhaps Mitchell can learn from Young a bit when it comes to doing more with less. While Mitchell is indeed catching and shooting more and taking fewer shots overall, he is operating largely the same way as he has in the past. Young, on the other hand, is averaging almost 10 fewer touches per game this year than last and isolating slightly less often.

After an ugly night in Sacramento this week in which Garland shot just 1-for-9 in a loss while Mitchell went for 38, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff dug into his team for not playing “Cavaliers basketball,” and demanding “not hero ball, not my turn, not selfish defensively, not executing game plans.” There is a clear-cut understanding of how they want to play, and with two players so gifted and creative leading the offense, the Cavs have time to figure out how to sort things out.

Cleveland also features a number of other guys who can create for themselves, including Evan Mobley, Caris LeVert, and Kevin Love. That’s a luxury that Mitchell has never had on his roster, outside of an older Mike Conley and some intermittent bursts from Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic in Utah. Assuming general manager Koby Altman can sort out the wing rotation by the trade deadline, this Cavs roster is deep and won’t rely on Mitchell to do it all on offense like Utah’s did.

On defense, the Cavs are bringing big ball back to the NBA, with a killer zone defense and the perfect personnel to snuff out the paint and simplify what Mitchell (and Garland) have to do on defense. Still, Mitchell has rediscovered his snappy hands and ability to fight through screens — it is worth mentioning that, coming into the league, he was viewed as a pitbull on the defensive end of the floor who needed his offense to catch up due to his athleticism and 6’10 wingspan. He’s on pace for the best block rate of his career and the defensive metrics love him so far. Even defending next to Gobert while the Frenchman was filling up his trophy case with DPOYs, Mitchell never looked this good.

Mitchell is a unique character in the NBA in that he is a three-time All-Star with no All-NBA appearances. He’s made the playoffs every year but never played in the conference finals. And while the numbers that show Utah playing better without Mitchell reversed during the two pandemic playoffs, that doesn’t change the fact that in back to back years in 2020 and 2021, the Jazz imploded in the postseason on his watch.

Climbing over these hills and to the final level of star status in the NBA isn’t easy, particularly when you join a new team and are expected to immediately raise the ceiling. Mitchell’s former teammate Gobert arrived in Minnesota with similar expectations of transforming an up-and-coming franchise into a consistent winner. Those results have been ugly — as of this writing, the Timberwolves are 5-7 and have lost five of their last six. It’s difficult for a player like Mitchell to hit the ground running individually and with his team, smashing the accelerator on the franchise’s fortunes.

Because of his box score brilliance and the fact that the Cavs were on an upswing when he joined, Mitchell will have to drive winning at the highest level, leading this team to the top of the conference to be properly celebrated for how he’s impacted things in northeast Ohio. He’s done everything short of this already, so winning and winning big are all that’s left.