Donovan Mitchell had the best season of his career in 2022-23, averaging a career-best 28.3 points in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to 51 wins. He wasn’t simply chucking the ball, either, as he shattered his previous career-best mark in true-shooting percentage at 61.4 percent.
Despite Mitchell’s success last season, including a Second-Team All-NBA berth, he hasn’t seen much of an increase in how he is viewed around the league. Other players are being pushed up player rankings and headlining NBA talk shows, while Mitchell floats around at his previous level (or even falls further away). That is partly because he didn’t play particularly well as the Cavaliers lost in the first round to the New York Knicks.
Why Mitchell didn’t get much respect after last season
For many of the Cavs’ players it was their first trip to the playoffs, and certainly playing with this group. Their roster construction left them few options to counter the New York Knicks’ defensive strategy, and the relatively “green” front line was knocked around a bit by the aggressive rebounding of the Knicks. Add in some vanilla coaching from J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavs had an early exit.
The playoffs are the most important part of the season, as the ultimate goal for every team is to win a championship. It makes sense to factor that into the evaluation of a player. It doesn’t make sense, however, to make such an evaluation separate from other contextual factors, such as a player’s teammates and his play in the regular season — it’s all part of the formula to evaluate a player.
What has happened to Donovan Mitchell this summer is that one five-game series is being inflated in importance, while the context is being stripped away. That’s led to other players being pushed up around and past him in the eyes of those evaluating the league.
Donovan Mitchell vs Jamal Murray
Let’s take one example that highlights this fact. Every year Seth Partnow over at The Athletic publishes his Top-125 players in the NBA, sorted into Player Tiers. It’s an excellent exercise, and Partnow has some really insightful things to say about players and how to evaluate them. In one area, however, he has seemed to lose his grip on his own criteria.
In his introduction to the piece, Partnow writes “One season is not a long time, even for the best of metrics, so I’d much rather use a multi-season sample.” In most of his analysis, he takes that multi-year view.
Donovan Mitchell was placed in “Tier 3A” of Partnow’s rankings, which would mean he is somewhere in the 19-24 range in the NBA. He admits he has a “stylistic distaste” for Mitchell’s game due to his “full hero ball” tendencies in the playoffs, and makes some fair points of comparison between Mitchell and Devin Booker when it comes to defensive capabilities; I think it’s correct to compare Mitchell and Booker favorably on offense and give Book the advantage on defense.
Partnow then punts everything out of the window when he reaches Tier 2, where he has placed Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and James Harden. If Partnow is trying to take the “long view” with someone like Harden, why does he push Murray impossibly high up the rankings based on one playoff run?
Murray had a tremendous run of games en route to Denver’s title this past season, but he did so playing alongside a two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic who dominates defensive attention and sets up teammates with his passing. Murray should deserve accolades for how well he played as the “No. 2” while acknowledging that he was the second option. Mitchell or other top options aren’t seeing the defensive opportunities that Murray is.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is something of an enigma on both sides, a player with just one elite season under his belt and no playoff experience; why is he ranked above Mitchell? SGA gets the benefit of the doubt that his game will work in the playoffs, while Mitchell is penalized for one bad series when he has an excellent offensive track record as his team’s top offensive option. Murray has never been asked to do that, so we can’t say how he would perform.
Murray looked great in the playoffs, in part because he played on a battle-tested team with the best player in the world. Yet playing on that same team Murray shot worse than Mitchell last season during the regular season, averaged 8.3 fewer points and was a worse defender by most metrics.
Jamal Murray had an opportunity to shine in the playoffs because he played with Nikola Jokic. He deserves a ton of credit for how well he shot the ball, but everyone needs to pump their brakes on anointing him as a Top-15 player. Donovan Mitchell has a more proven track record while playing with less supporting talent; at some point, the context has to matter.
Perhaps next season will be an opportunity for Mitchell to prove himself anew, either through regular-season dominance or further playoff success. Or perhaps the shadows of the past and the lack of an MVP Serbian on the Cavaliers’ roster will doom him to a certain level of disrespect when it comes to his peers.