PHILADELPHIA — Less than five weeks since being acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a stunning blockbuster of a trade to cap a frenetic offseason in the NBA, Donovan Mitchell made his debut for the Cavaliers Wednesday in Cleveland’s preseason opener.
And, after finishing with 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range, to go with five assists in 19 minutes in a 113-112 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, Mitchell admitted the idea of putting on a different jersey than the Utah Jazz one he wore the first five years of his career will take some getting used to.
“One hundred percent,” Mitchell said with a smile, when asked if it felt weird wearing a different jersey for the first time. “It just didn’t feel real … it still didn’t hit me yet.”
Mitchell said he spent Monday looking out the window of the Four Seasons high above downtown Philadelphia, and that it was only then that it really sunk in that he was about to be officially playing for another team for the first time.
“Today, I just kind of sat there and had one of those moments where you sit there and look out and see everything and it’s like, ‘Wow. It’s really here’,” he said.
“Then once you get on the court, basketball is basketball. But all the little things, it’s definitely weird. A little different. But I’m excited. It’s going the way I thought it would, in a good way.”
Mitchell’s arrival in Cleveland to augment a burgeoning young core featuring All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen and runner up for last season’s Rookie of the Year award in Evan Mobley has the Cavaliers hoping this season will mark an uptick in fortunes to places the franchise hasn’t seen in decades when LeBron James wasn’t in town.
The last time Cleveland made the playoffs without James? The 1997-98 season. The last time the Cavaliers won a playoff series without him? Thirty seasons ago, in the 1992-93 campaign, when Cleveland was swept by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in four games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But to do those things — particularly in what is arguably the deepest version of the Eastern Conference the NBA has seen in a generation or more — Cleveland will first need to get its two ball-dominant guards, Mitchell and Garland, on the same page.
Before Wednesday night’s game, Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff laid out the criteria that will show that process is taking hold, saying the focus was on avoiding playing “your turn, my turn” basketball.
Afterward, he, Garland and Mitchell all were pleased with how things came together in their first dry run against another team.
“I thought it was pretty seamless,” Bickerstaff said. “The way they played together, the way the ball moved, everybody got involved … as long as we play in the same style we want to play, where it isn’t just based on one guy, but based on the team, I think it’s going to work out well for us.”
And, for the most part, it did Wednesday night. Mitchell’s first make as a Cavalier — a 3-pointer from the right wing — came off an assist from Garland, who finished with 12 points and four assists on 4-for-7 shooting in 15 minutes, and was sandwiched between Mitchell setting up Kevin Love for a pair of triples himself.
“I think we did a lot of things well,” Mitchell said. “You walk up the floor and it’s like, ‘He’s got it.’ But it’s not like, ‘He’s got it in isolation.’ It’s like, he’s got it, make a play, create … I said in the locker room, we didn’t call a lot of plays in the first half. That speaks to our ball movement.”
After Cleveland was almost solely reliant on Garland to both create offense for himself and his teammates last season, he was thrilled at his opening look at life playing alongside Mitchell — even within the meaningless confines of the first half of Cleveland’s first preseason game, in large part because of how it’s going to take pressure off of him to do everything offensively.
“I think it was the spacing, for me,” Garland said, when asked what he noticed most about playing next to Mitchell. “Just coming off pick and rolls, there’s so many threats on the opposite side, and it’s just a lot easier … you can just pick your poison. You have to live with it.
“It was just fun out there, to be honest with you.”
While Cleveland is waiting to get forward Evan Mobley back on the court after he suffered a sprained ankle over the weekend, the Cavaliers also have another decision to make between now and opening night: Who will start at small forward alongside Garland, Mitchell, Mobley and Allen.
There are a few possible options, including Caris LeVert, who started Wednesday’s game, Dean Wade, who hit 3 triples off the bench, and Isaac Okoro, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Bickerstaff said his ultimate decision on who to plug in there will be determined by how they can help unlock the best attributes of the four stars around them.
“It’s just going to be truly about the fit, and that’s going to be who makes those four guys better,” he said. “Who helps them on the offensive end of the floor? Who helps them on the defensive end of the floor? Who can protect guys in certain situations defensively? How does it help our matchups? Offensively, how does it help us space the floor? Those are all things we’re taking into consideration.”