Four days before Halloween the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder. Playing without Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, Donovan MItchell took the scoring burden on his shoulders and dropped 43 points. The short-handed Cavs still lost, outscored by 10 points in the six minutes that Mitchell sat en route to a three-point defeat.
A week later, the Cavaliers lost in Indiana on the opening night of the In-Season Tournament, a loss that would both hold the Cavs from advancing and propelled the Pacers toward their spot in the title game. Mitchell scored 38 points but the Cavaliers ultimately lost by five; they had their full starting lineup for the first time all season but were clearly shaking off rust as Allen and Garland eased back in.
It was more of the same this week. The Cavaliers took on the Boston Celtics twice in three nights, playing both games without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Evan Mobley and one without Sixth Man Caris LeVert. Mitchell scored 29 points on Tuesday night, a seven-point loss, and followed that up with 31 in a nine-point loss on Thursday.
Donovan Mitchell isn't enough for a Cavaliers victory
It has to be frustrating for Mitchell, a supreme competitor, that he can't seem to do enough on his own to will this team to victory. If he shoots poorly, the Cavs are almost certainly going to lose; they are 2-5 in games where he shoots 35 percent or worse from the field. At the same time, even a Mitchell explosion doesn't elevate them to an easy victory.
Mitchell summed up that frustration after the latest loss to the Celtics, one where Mitchell was again excellent but was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter by double-teams and the ball denial of Jrue Holiday. He didn't mince any words: "Gotta pick this shit up."
There is an aspect where he could be speaking to himself; his shooting percentages are down from last season, and he's hitting only 34.5 percent of his 3-pointers, His rim attempts have gone down and he has increased the percentage of his shots coming from floater range; is that a result of poor spacing or a little less verve from Mitchell in getting to the rim?
More so than anything, however, it's a plea to the entire team. Yes, the Cavaliers have been injured, but many teams have dealt with injuries. The Cavs aren't good enough or deep enough to weather injuries to key players, which makes them vulnerable to even one of their Top 6 missing time.
So the rest of the team has to be able to pick up the slack more than they have thus far. The Cavaliers are a mediocre 13-12 with a -0.4 net rating. Last season they won 51 games and had a +5.6 net rating, second-best in the league. They're now on track for a season around .500 and a berth in the Play-In Tournament.
This was a team that was supposed to push the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, a versatile, young roster that addressed its biggest need in the offseason by adding shooting. Instead, they're barely clinging to a winning record, they can't seem to get healthy, and their offense -- ninth last season before upgrading their shooting -- is just 24th in the league. Their defense, the best in the NBA last season, has slipped down to 8th.
At some point, hard losses turn into hard questions and even harder answers. Do the Cavaliers break up their two-big look? Can they find a way to add more 3-and-D players? Do they need a coaching change? The question looming over everything else is even bigger: when does Donovan Mitchell request a trade?
That time isn't now. The Cavaliers are just 1.5 games out of fifth. They have wins over most of the teams above them in the standings. When Mobley is healthy they may actually get to play a stretch of games with their top six players intact; they could absolutely make a run up the standings and reestablish themselves as a team to fear in the East.
Right now, however, the Cavs aren't there. A chasm exists between this group and the teams truly contending, from Boston to Milwaukee to Philadelphia. No one is dominating on offense like those team's stars, and the defense hasn't been elite enough to make up for it.
Mitchell is right. Something has to change. Perhaps that is a greater effort from the players. Perhaps it's a scheme change from the coaches. Perhaps it's a personnel move from the front office. What the franchise collectively has been accomplishing is not enough. This is a team with real expectations and a star on a timer.
The Cavaliers better pick this $h!t up. If not, they're heading for a real storm.