Last season, Donovan Mitchell had a career year in his first one with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Following Cleveland acquiring him via trade from the Utah Jazz last offseason, Mitchell had a career regular season across the board.
Mitchell had a career-best in points per contests at 28.3, and he tied for a career-high in three-point shooting hit rate at 38.6 percent and true shooting at 61.4 percent. He broke a Cavaliers franchise single-season record for three-pointers made with 245 as well, and a Cavs’ single-game scoring record with 71 points.
For his efforts in helping the Wine and Gold get back to the playoffs, Mitchell was named All-NBA for the first time in his six seasons, and was All-NBA Second Team. He was an All-Star starter for the first time during last season as well, which was yet another feat for him in the 2022-23 campaign.
That said, even for his accolades and gaudy numbers, it was also great to watch Mitchell show a seemingly newfound commitment on the other end of the floor. Mitchell’s defense was a pleasant surprise, and he’ll have to carry that forward.
Mitchell has to build on his defense from last season for the Cavs.
As a primary option scorer, Mitchell being a lockdown defensive player is not going to be a realistic expectation in today’s league. That’s just not going to be the case.
His defense was inconsistent in his recent prior seasons with the Jazz, and coming into last season, top-notch defense was not what Cleveland fans were looking for from Mitchell. Him giving the Cavaliers more offensive firepower on the perimeter was what they were looking for, and he provided that; we touched on his splits there.
Granted, Mitchell’s playoff performance on offense left plenty to be desired in a disappointing first-round loss to the New York Knicks, and that left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, but he was hardly the only Cav that didn’t play well on that end. And one should look for him to bounce back, given his talent level, and with what he displayed for so much of last season.
However, generally, Mitchell’s defense was solid last year, all things considered, given the circumstances, and going forward, he has to maintain his level of urgency shown on that end of the floor last season from here.
Mitchell is not going to be known as the second coming of Gary Payton as a defensive guard for the Cavs from this point onward, and that’s no breaking news. Despite some shortcomings there, though, Mitchell did seem to be much more locked-in on that end of the floor than he was in recent prior season with the Jazz, which led to him appearing more viable on defense.
Now, that was partly due to Darius Garland being involved as a star playmaker and multi-faceted guard scorer, too, and players such as Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro, among others, being involved in minutes with Mitchell out there, too. Cleveland had the league’s top-ranked defense during last regular season, and the Cavaliers largely have a defensive identity under J.B. Bickerstaff. Also, n a new situation, Mitchell’s buy-in on defense was going to be re-engaged to some degree.
Those caveats aside, Mitchell seemed to be far more invested on-ball defensively with his positioning, and while there were still some inconsistencies in that aspect, off the ball, he would often give multiple efforts in rotations, which was especially encouraging. Mitchell did have 1.5 steals per game last season, which exhibited some of that effort, and he is an active rebounding guard, which is meaningful.
But overall, even with others having to factor into Cleveland’s defense from here, with players such as Dean Wade, perhaps Damian Jones a bit and another potential move for a defensive wing or forward, the Cavs do still need Mitchell to build on his defense from 2022-23.
If Mitchell can carry that sort of play forward, and maybe pace himself a bit more on offense and defer some, it will only help Cleveland’s group heading to and into the playoffs.
Donovan’s offense is going to be the focal point, and that goes without saying. However, his defensive improvement and engagement level last season was a pleasant surprise, and looking onward, that has to continue for him and the team to be at their best.
Hopefully those sort of things pay dividends, with Cleveland’s productive offseason in mind, and Mobley’s possible third-year leap, too.