It’s hard to win at the highest levels in the NBA. When you reach the playoffs the defenses get stronger, the game-planning merciless and the stars play even closer to the sun. The Cleveland Cavaliers felt that difference when they made the playoffs last year and were promptly jostled out in just five games.
A team built to win in the regular season can struggle to translate its success to the postseason. In the parlance of four-time champion Draymond Green, some teams are 82-game teams and others are 16-game teams.
That’s the concern that NBA writer Eric Pincus recently expressed when writing for Bleacher Report. He placed the Cavaliers’ backcourt on his list of “NBA star pairings that just don’t work” and his reasoning pointed to a lack of playoff viability for the combination of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland.
Mitchell and Garland just don’t work?
If the goal for the Cavaliers is to “stay relevant and make the playoffs annually,” Pincus writes, then this backcourt pairing should work fine. If the goal is to win a championship, however, he doesn’t think that playing two small guards together is a recipe for success.
Is Pincus right? In terms of NBA history, he certainly is. The last team to start two small guards and win a title was the Detroit Pistons in 1990, and the Bad Boys certainly played bigger than their stature. They also played a pair of towering bigs at all times, starting two seven-footers in James Edwards and Bill Laimbeer and rotating in the 6’11” John Salley in behind them.
That’s the theory of the case for the Cavaliers with their small backcourt. They hope that Mitchell, despite standing just 6’1″, can play bigger than his height by leveraging his athleticism and 6’10” wingspan to defend more like a wing. And they hope that by stacking the front line with size between Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley the interior defense balances out the small backcourt.
To realize that plan, however, the Cavs will need Mitchell to become a better defender, and for Darius Garland to grow in his ability to slither across screens and swipe the ball away from opposing ball-handlers. It will be difficult for a contending Cavaliers team to play a third perimeter player capable of checking opposing guards and allowing Garland and Mitchell to slide to other positions, making it dependent on the two of them to check the other team’s backcourt in most situations.
Pincus is likely overstating his case because his editors thought “NBA star pairings that just don’t work” would be a good headline; it’s fair to question the size of Cleveland’s backcourt, but Garland and Mitchell have certainly “worked” thus far and deserve more than one postseason to prove they can grow into a contending duo.
How do the Cavaliers build around a small backcourt?
The key may be finding the right wing rotation to fill in around Mitchell and Garland, and that’s been a struggle for the Cavaliers. They need a player with the size to defend forwards, a knockdown 3-point shot, above-average rebounding ability for his position and the lateral mobility to switch onto guards. That’s a tall ask for a team that traded away most of its assets to add Mitchell in the first place.
That player probably isn’t on the roster yet, but the Cavs will hope they can churn their way to finding them by continuing to improve the team and, in the process, increasing the trade value of the players they have and could move for that wing. Max Strus is too small, Isaac Okoro can’t shoot, Dean Wade too slow, Caris LeVert too duplicative. A player like Dennis Rodman helped unlock those Bad Boys Pistons with his defensive versatility and playmaking, and the Cavs will need the 2020s version of that player.
This season will be about the growth of Evan Mobley, about the fit of the role players, about how the Cavs continue to develop as a team. Ultimately, however, it will be about the playoffs, and whether a team with two small guards can break through. They don’t have to win it all this year to prove the trade a success, but another quick exit would be discouraging and force the front office to ask some hard questions.
We don’t know that this star pairing doesn’t work; the offensive upside is tremendous and the early returns are promising. Pincus and others are right to question the ability of this team to win it all as currently constructed, but there are a lot of teams who have bigger guards and are worse because those guards don’t have the talent of Mitchell and Garland.
The Cavs are going to war with this group, and this season will help prove whether this pairing can work at the highest levels. No new information will be provided to the discussion until the playoffs come, and that’s when Mitchell and Garland will need to prove themselves.