Donovan Mitchell raises Cavs to title contender in East
CLEVELAND (AP) — As Donovan Mitchell worked his way around Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse’s floor recently, stopping to pose for photographers on media day, something stood out about the Cavaliers’ star guard.
He couldn’t stop smiling.
Asked at one station to pose holding the ball and looking angry, Mitchell declined.
“That’s not me,” he said.
It’s hardly anyone these days in Cleveland as the Cavs, who won the NBA’s offseason with their acquisition of Mitchell in a seismic trade from Utah, have risen from a team with promise to one with championship potential.
After doubling their win total (22 to 44) and barely missing the playoffs following a spate of ill-timed injuries late last season, the Cavs are confident that with Mitchell, a three-time All-Star and elite scorer, they can jump back among the Eastern Conference’s top tier for the first time since LeBron James left.
Mitchell has moved the needle.
“Somebody like Donovan who has experience, just turned 26, is a star in this league, just provides us an opportunity to take an even bigger step this year,” said Cavs forward Kevin Love, who has ridden the team’s rollercoaster over nine seasons. “I know what he’s about; he’s about winning.
“I know a fresh start is going to be good for him, as well. But I’m excited to see what he does with this team. He fits in really well with us.”
Mitchell’s arrival gives Cleveland its biggest star since James. He’s a player capable of dominating and one willing to embrace those moments that define games, seasons and careers. The 6-foot-1 Mitchell averaged 25.9 points last season while carrying a Jazz team that counted on him maybe too much.
With the Cavs, he’ll have plenty of help.
Darius Garland emerged as one of the game’s rising star point guards last season, averaging 21.7 points and 8.6 assists while developing into a bona fide leader — at just 22 — and the Cavs locked him up with a maximum, five-year, $193 million contract extension in July.
Both are ball-dominant players, but Mitchell and Garland appear to recognize in their brief time together that they’re better as a balanced act with one guard drawing double-teams to free the other.
Up front, the Cavs have All-Star center Jarrett Allen and forward Evan Mobley, who added muscle during the offseason and appears poised to flex his game further after shining as a rookie (15 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks).
There aren’t many teams that can match Cleveland’s firepower.
“We have the makings of a team that could have four All-Stars, right?” Love said. “If you look at our lineup, we have depth, we can play a number of ways. We’ve got some young stars that I think are going to make a lot of noise this year.”
No wonder Mitchell’s smiling.
START ME UP
Cleveland’s first four: Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen, are set. Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s challenge has been to find a small forward to replace Lauri Markkanen (hardly small at 7-foot), who was dealt in the Mitchell deal as the fifth starter.
He’s got many options with Caris LeVert appearing to have a slight edge over Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade because of his versatility.
LeVert struggled after arriving in a trade from Indiana in February, but he’s healthy and playing well on the defensive end, a priority for Bickerstaff.
Cleveland brags about its unique culture of togetherness, which can be seen in the way the Cavs’ interact on and off the floor.
It’s a brotherhood.
“You could really feel the aura of that locker room,” said center Robin Lopez, who noticed the Cavs’ connection when he played in Orlando last season before signing with Cleveland as a free agent in July. “To be here and witness it in training camp, it seems real and seems legitimate.
Ricky Rubio came back to finish what he started.
The veteran backup guard had a major role in Cleveland’s turnaround last season before suffering a tear of his left anterior cruciate ligament for the second time. The 31-year-old mentored Garland, energized Love, his close friend and former teammate in Minnesota, and got the Cavs to believe in themselves.
“He was the one who encompassed everything that we were about last year,” Love said. ”Even when he wasn’t around, his presence was felt.”
Rubio re-signed with the Cavs this summer. He’s still rehabbing the knee, and hopes to be back in December.
Rubio’s been reunited with Mitchell, a teammate in Utah, but he’s especially looking forward to being back with Garland.
“I love playing with him and he’s one of the big parts where I wanted to come back to see his growth,” Rubio said. “He’s an All-Star now and he’s on his own way. Feel like we had a connection last year and hopefully we can keep building from there.”
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