This is a league where hard and fast claims will get you in trouble. We probably declare these things too late, suggesting a suddenness that's not altogether correct, but the old orders have almost completely disintegrated by now. LeBron's Lakers can't keep themselves together for more than a couple weeks, Steph's Warriors are .500, Durant's Nets are flourishing but delicate. And our total trust doesn't yet belong to the younger generation: Tatum and Brown's Celtics, Giannis's Bucks, Jokić's Nuggets, Ja's Grizzlies. Zion will need to assemble a few more healthy months before anyone truly believes in the Pelicans. Same goes for the Clippers' star tandem. It's exciting not to know things, the weekly schedule unspooling rhythms of solidifying and eroding fact, but you feel like an idiot, trying to form analysis that will sustain longer than wintertime daylight.
Here, let's try something: Donovan Mitchell has been renewed. It can be tough to assess the utility of scoring guards. They're going to get their points, but whether they're contributing to winning more than making the stat sheet look pretty depends on a slim degree of efficiency: 9-for-19 vs. 8-for-19. That difference, sustained over time, is all that separates a rare talent from a relatively common one. There are other dimensions of a player's game to consider, but Mitchell was brought to Cleveland in exchange for a few players and more than a few draft picks because he's supposed to be able to put the ball in the basket about as well as anyone in the league. Whether he fully earned this reputation in Utah was up for debate. There were spells—recall his duel with Jamal Murray during the pandemic-inflected 2020 postseason—when he was untouchable, but the bulk of evidence suggested he wasn't quite it. His greatness was qualified and questioned by flaring chucker tendencies, a lack of defensive effort, spats with Rudy Gobert, that desultory exist against Dallas in the 2022 playoffs. In aggregate, Mitchell's record sketched the outline of a player who would make lots of money and post big numbers but wouldn't realize himself as the fulcrum of a title contender. A franchise guy on a franchise that always comes up short.
He hasn't yet spent half a season as a Cavalier, but the sample size at this point is no longer small, and it's beginning to seem like Mitchell had another level in him, that he simply wasn't going to discover in Utah. Sometimes you just need to change gigs. Over 30-plus games, Mitchell has been exactly what the Cavs traded for. He's shooting impeccably, but beyond that, he's all the way dialed in. He moves with violent purpose on and off the ball, has a painter's sense of proposition in terms of when to drive, shoot, pull up, dish, or bail out of his move and let someone else work. He's interested in defense again, using his long arms and superior balance to smother drives and bother shooters. If Mitchell can't hope the dominate the floor completely like Giannis or post preposterously loaded Jokić-esque statlines, he does in his current form seem capable of uncorking a terrifying playoff run, the sorts of performances where the opponent gives up on guarding him, starts deploying double teams as soon as he catches the ball anywhere in the vicinity of his shooting range.
We'll see if Mitchell can sustain this altitude over the course of an entire season, as volume and fatigue threaten his shooting numbers, and the monotony of a six-month schedule wears down his commitment. But it's comfortably realistic for a 26-year-old who was perhaps a touch bored over the past couple of years to come fully into his own in a fresh setting. This is exactly the time when a player defines his prime as a thin repackaging of what he offered in his early 20s, or something more intensely refined. Mitchell's trending toward the latter.
Against his transformation, the Cavs are broadly unsettled. This is mostly a good thing. They're very young—Mitchell is the old man in the starting lineup—and prone to late-game lapses as much as moments when the total extent of their potential feels impossibly vast. Darius Garland is constantly testing the limits of his own coordination, splitting double teams by spinning the ball out into space, floating it at the rim, hucking fadeaways that are more like falling-downs, whipping passes that are alternately perfect and approximate. All of this works more than it should but also gives off the impression of imminent disaster. Garland is maybe the best player in the league who looks totally incompetent on a bad night, like the Cavs strapped some shorts on a beached salmon and told him to go run the offense. You worry about him, and then when it's all clicking, you guess that he's figured out something that you were too small-minded to even dream about.
Evan Mobley is more reliable, and that's slightly worrying in its own way. He's improving in increments, more comfortable with the ball than in his rookie year and moving it with a readiness that suggests he sees the whole floor in ways that seven footers typically don't. But that pyrotechnic second-year breakout predicted in certain season previews isn't happening. This is hardly a massive concern for a 21-year-old who's still growing into his body. You just get anxious, watching him in his current state. Wonder as he hoists one or two tentative triples per game if his range will ever extend that far, how he'll wear the weight he eventually puts on and if it will make him a dominant paint player or merely a stouter version of what he is now. Garland has a hard ceiling, being six-foot-a-smidgen and less than astoundingly athletic, but if this version of Donovan Mitchell is going to find a running mate with which he can mount a real title challenge, it's going to be Mobley, who has been connected in so many utterances with Giannis, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, et al. He has the tools to travel that span, but tools are the not the same thing as a working vehicle. Again: he's 21.
In the meantime, the Cavs remain more cute than contender. That's totally okay. On a night-to-night basis, they are immensely enjoyable. But as the wins accumulate, so does scrutiny. Donovan Mitchell knows about this. His Jazz's regular season successes, which were commended early on, curdled into a kind of bitter joke. Yeah, okay, let me know if Utah actually does anything in the playoffs. He'll be wary of signs that cycle is repeating itself in Cleveland. Whether it does or not will depend on Garland and (especially) Mobley's development, and Mitchell maintaining the precedent he's set so far this season. The NBA is in flux, without a hegemon or even a strictly defined group of teams we expect to find in the Conference Finals year after year. The Cavs might arrive in that group soon. They might.