CLEVELAND — There are two questions — and that’s it; just two — hovering over the Cleveland Cavaliers now and for the foreseeable future.
No. 1: Are they tougher, more mature and harder to guard than the version of themselves that was summarily dismissed from the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last April?
And No. 2: Is Donovan Mitchell happy enough in Cleveland to sign a lucrative contract extension this summer?
Neither question can truly be answered for months, but the coaches, players and front office are going to be constantly looking for clues that, on each issue, the team is trending toward the affirmative.
The Cavs are in the midst of a three-game winning streak, having just ripped the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets to shreds on Sunday. The final score was 121-109, but the game was nowhere near that close. Jarrett Allen, a former All-Star for the Cavs, posted a plus-minus of plus-42 on Sunday, playing mostly against two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, and an undrafted rookie point guard named Craig Porter Jr. scored a career-high 21 points with his Cleveland team nearly running out of veterans who play that position.
Until last weekend, the Cavs had not won consecutive games all season. Darius Garland and Mitchell have played all of six games together this season, out of 13, and Sunday was not one of them. Mitchell was out again with a mild hamstring strain — sore enough for him to be in street clothes but not so bad that he can’t leap to his feet off the bench when a teammate makes a nice play or stroll down the baseline to chat with Browns star Myles Garrett during a timeout. Isaac Okoro and Ty Jerome have been injured for a while; Caris LeVert popped up on the injury report late Sunday with knee soreness and was held out.
When pressed last month about where he stands on the whole load management discussion in the NBA — remember, the league said the practice is no longer supported by scientific data held by the league — coach J.B. Bickerstaff made it clear this organization was never going to push a player onto the court in the regular season at greater risk of injury. The Cavs have been both unlucky and cautious when it comes to their inability to get all their key pieces together.
The first two wins of this streak came at Portland and then Friday at home over Detroit, against two of the worst teams in the league. The Nuggets do not fall into that category. They are still without Jamal Murray, who has a hamstring strain of his own, but their other heavyweights of Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are still out there swinging. They trailed by as many as 26 against the Cavs, who frustrated Jokić with foul trouble, dominated the paint and chalked up 30 assists on 45 baskets.
Also counting among their seven wins this season are a clean sweep (two for two) over the Golden State Warriors, with Steph Curry on the court, and a win in New York over the Knicks, who had done two things that really wounded the Cleveland group. They had A.) exposed and embarrassed the Cavs in a gentleman’s sweep from the first round last season, which shook the them and caused some tough questions to be pondered internally; and B.) slapped them down again on TNT in fourth game of this season. Cleveland’s payback win at Madison Square Garden followed the next night.
“We’ve got to see it,” Bickerstaff said. “I think that second game that we played on the back-to-back in New York, I thought our guys showed it. I thought they were gritty. I thought we were the more physical team that game. I thought we were really, really good defensively as a whole, controlling the ball and taking individual challenges and those types of things. But it’s about the consistency, right? So I think it’s too early for me to jump out here and say, you know, hooray, we’ve done the job.”
The Cavs know they are a good team, at least in the regular season. They are convinced, with good reason, that their 51 wins a year ago were not a fluke, given the talent amassed (Mitchell is a current All-Star; Garland and Allen have been All-Stars in the past; Evan Mobley is an All-NBA first-team defender). They added two pieces they didn’t have in Max Strus and Georges Niang, a starter and a backup, respectively, who can run off screens, catch and shoot 3s or hit a teammate rolling to the rim who’s free because a defender had to chase Strus or Niang out to the perimeter.
Cleveland isn’t taking a playoff berth for granted, by any means, but there is a universal expectation that the Cavs reach the postseason. If there wasn’t, the Mitchell question wouldn’t be a question at all.
If they should reach the playoffs for a second consecutive season, to a man, the Cavs want to be sure they are ready this time. Among the startling moments from that Knicks series was Allen’s admission after the series that the “lights were brighter than expected” — as he acknowledged the Knicks dominated the series on the glass, in the lane and in every other measure that determines who was the tougher team.
“That’s definitely in the back of our minds,” Allen said Sunday after his 15 points and five rebounds against the Nuggets, about his critique from last spring. “But genuinely and honestly, we have a lot more things to solve before we look to the postseason. We got a lot of defensive things that I still think we need to work on in terms of just being in the right position at the right time, and then we can focus on the next step on the postseason.”
Going back to our two questions at the top, there are more moving parts to the answer that’s forming about whether this team will be better prepared for April, assuming it gets there. Mobley was handling the ball at the top of the offense Sunday, even bringing it up the floor, as the Cavs continue to look for more shots for him. He was awesome at both ends, scoring 16 points on 11 shots, with 10 boards, five assists and two blocks. Strus was quieter Sunday than his 18 points, four 3s and monster dunk against the Pistons on Friday. His presence in the lineup is having its intended effect overall. Porter, who spent two years in junior college, two at Wichita State and is now on a two-way contract, essentially has come out of nowhere as an option when all of these other guards can’t play.
But as important as any of those things — and, really, they go hand in hand — is what Mitchell thinks of the team’s direction. Mitchell didn’t play last weekend and is unavailable for comment on nights he doesn’t play, so he couldn’t be asked what he thinks about the goings-on in Cleveland.
Mitchell, a four-time All-Star, is under contract for this season and next in Cleveland and has a $37 million player’s option for 2025-26. But if he declines a contract extension with the Cavs this summer, the franchise would have to give great consideration to trading him ahead of his likely free agency in 2025. Cleveland traded an eventual All-Star and three first-round picks, as well as two chances for Utah to swap its first-round draft order with the Cavs, to get Mitchell. Making him happy and confident in the direction of the franchise is paramount.
Mitchell enjoyed the best regular season of his career under Bickerstaff last year and also struggled noticeably in the playoffs. He took responsibility for it publicly but, league sources said, declined to play for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup last summer in part because of his usage on the Cavs.
Cleveland did what it could to upgrade the roster, with Strus and Niang. The more Mobley develops on offense, the better for all. Garland had a brilliant weekend with Mitchell in street clothes; the more they learn to play off each other, the harder the Cavs will be to guard. Mitchell is still averaging a career high in points (29.2) and shots (21.6), though four of his 10 games thus far were without at least two other usual starters on the court.
“I think to this point, pretty consistently, you can see more of a flow to our offense, more guys who can move off the ball and create advantages that way and then, you know, finish at the end of it with either paint attacks or catch and shoot,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s too early to say it’s done. It’s something that you have to consistently do and create the identity of — that’s who you are.”
Mostly because of the Cavs’ trade for him, and also because of how the rest of the roster is constructed, there likely isn’t another drastic move to be made for new players. Otherwise, all the Cavs are continually looking for progress. They’re finding it in spots, and a less-than-whole collection of them picked up an impressive win Sunday.
With Mitchell watching, making mental note.
(Top photo of Donovan Mitchell: David Richard / USA Today)