Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers focused on playoff success, not future speculation

CLEVELAND — The Eastern Conference is jumbled with teams that have stretches of dominance mixed with runs of confusion and inconsistency — yet optimism remains.

The Cleveland Cavaliers fit right into both categories, at times spellbinding and other times, confounding. They’re better built than the bunch that went out meekly to the New York Knicks in five games in the first round last year, and despite injuries to almost every key player, the Cavaliers are on track for another 50-win season.

They’ve battled health and consistency, but still sit third in the East. The Cavaliers are no longer riding the 17-1 stretch from early January to mid-February that put them right in the thick of things in the conference. In fact, without it they’re 29-29 after Tuesday’s win against the Utah Jazz. But that’s not how this works. All the games count. All the pieces matter.

Milwaukee is struggling, the New York Knicks are in a free fall. Philadelphia is depending on the health of the returning Joel Embiid. Miami has been up and down all year.

So Cleveland isn’t alone here.

It’s just been rare all the pieces have been fully healthy and firing at the same time. You almost feel like there’s too much talent, even if there’s no overpowering, physically imposing supernova.

The Cavaliers were without both point guard Darius Garland and big man Evan Mobley in December and January, leaving All-Star Donovan Mitchell the keys. It was where he entered the back end of the MVP discussion, averaging nearly 29 points with seven assists and five rebounds on 50/38/82 splits during the streak.

Not only was he healthy, he was destructive and played with a freedom that permeated to his teammates.

“A lot of it came by necessity. I felt like I was playing pretty well (before). But it’s how you get respect, is by winning,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports. “Continuing to make plays, being a better defender, rebounder. Being a passer is huge as well."

Their lone loss in that 17-1 stretch was to the Bucks, but not only did they turn around and beat them in the baseball series road-road two nights later, they whipped on them by 40 a week before — albeit with no Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup.

Mitchell was given the freedom to be the best version of himself by coach J.B. Bickerstaff, and Bickerstaff had to use some more conventional lineups to create space for Mitchell to exploit. They’d found something, unearthing an identity they’ve been trying to reclaim since. Mitchell credits Sam Merrill, Georges Niang and Isaac Okoro for stepping in and helping the Cavaliers form such an identity, of being a little tougher.

“It kinda came by necessity,” Bickerstaff told Yahoo Sports in early March. “You gotta put five out there. We put groups out there who we thought paired together, and we have depth. So we have guys we believe in who were capable of getting the job done.”

They’re not more talented than Mobley — who can be generational if he puts on weight but is more Slim Duncan than Tim Duncan — and Garland, who made an All-Star team in 2022 but has seen his production tail off slightly. Garland was adequate in the playoffs last year, but neither he nor Mobley stood out in their first career postseason series — which is to be expected. How they’ll fare the second time around will be asked, regardless of the opponent.

Playing two small-ish guards and two tall bigs (Mobley and Jarrett Allen) who aren’t necessarily wide bodies makes for a unique situation. But the absences of Garland and Mobley did put things more in alignment during the streak, and now you ask if the team has too much talent.

“I don’t believe so,” Bickerstaff said. “It matters, the personality of the talent. If you have selfish individual talent, then I think it makes it extremely difficult. But if you have talent that understands, the main thing is going about winning, and the talent is willing to sacrifice for the win, then I don't think there's such a thing.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case, but the talent hasn't been wholly cohesive yet.

“You can never have too much talent, but I will say this: I think it’s a testament to our depth,” Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman told Yahoo Sports, then giving credit to Bickerstaff. “We knew last summer we would have to make ourselves deeper, making ourselves more explosive, diversifying our offense.”

They launch 3s at a much higher rate than last season, with the same efficiency. Last year, they were 24th in attempts. This time around, they’re eighth — taking five more per game. Garland’s field goal percentage is down since the break (41 percent), but that’s because nearly half of his shots come from 3, where he’s shooting at a 39 percent clip. He found getting into the lane was tougher sledding last spring — playing more off Mitchell and spotting up could be the best usage for him.

Mitchell, at least, would be on All-NBA ballots if he were eligible. At 51 games, he falls short of the 65-game threshold necessary. At the time he talked to Yahoo Sports, Mitchell had missed a game and was five away from reaching his limit — days later, it was announced he would miss time with a PRP injection in his left knee.

He’s played four games since Feb. 28.

Mitchell’s contract status has always been, and will be, a topic of conversation. All of it is due to circumstance, dating back to Mitchell being drafted by Utah and then when he wanted out and the Jazz were similarly looking to go in another direction; he wasn’t sent to his preferred destination, the hometown New York Knicks.

Usually when his name is brought up, it’s less about his play and more on his future.

“Easy story. I’m from New York, the contract situation, it’s the easy thing if you don’t watch us play,” Mitchell told Yahoo Sports a month ago. “I think that’s what it is. You don’t watch us play, don’t want to watch us play and that’s fine and it’s the easy thing to talk about.

“It’s like, ‘Where’s he going? What’s he gonna do? I don’t know if he’s happy, this or that. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s whatever. I’m gonna focus on being a leader for this group. That’s it. It does’t bother me that much.”

He was shipped to another place that hasn’t been known to attract star free agents (albeit one without Akron, Ohio, ties) — the Cavaliers. Mitchell is eligible for an extension this summer, he can opt out next summer, but hasn’t talked about it. He won’t talk about it.

“The only time I ever felt (anxiety) was when I was getting traded. Just because I had no idea, I’d never been in that position. It’s never gotten to me, like negatively. It’s like, I’m not gonna continue to address it. Not gonna talk about it a thousand times. I gave my answer at media day and my job is to be the best player I can for this group.”

On media day, he said he told the front office he wanted to focus on the season, being happy with the additions, and not the speculation. He pointed out then, on his own, he can re-sign in the summer of 2024.

That doesn’t mean he’s destined to bounce, nor does it mean he will pledge allegiance either. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in a rare public statement that he believes Mitchell will re-sign.

Mitchell, true to his form, wouldn't add any kerosene to it.

He prefers to focus on what’s ahead. Even during the streak, Mitchell was focused on how the Cavaliers played rather than the end result. Sounds like he had some clairvoyance considering the struggles since.

It would be fair if the Knicks series stung him, still, but he says it doesn’t.

“Not in the way I thought it would. I think it’s moreso a building block,” Mitchell said. “Am I pissed off we didn’t make it to the conference finals, second round? Yeah but I can’t hold onto it, that’s the past. How can we get here to get past that. The way it sticks with me, I saw how this happened here, cool. I saw different guys in situations … like more from a development standpoint.”

There's no other way to put it, the Knicks beat them up in last year’s playoff series. The Cavaliers didn’t lack size, but perhaps good old-fashioned girth was missing and the thicker Knicks threw them around.

“You can’t be the best defensive team and not have some toughness. This year, we’re third (in early March),” Altman told Yahoo Sports, before pointing at a few offseason additions like veteran Tristan Thompson, Georges Niang and Max Strus. “They definitely bring an edge and competitive spirit of physicality.”

He then gets to the bottom line of things.

“For us, we have to beat somebody, you know? Beat somebody in April to prove ourselves. We want playoff success.”

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