“That Shouldn’t Happen. We Should Have Been Home An Hour Ago.” | The Cleveland Cavaliers Have Found Their Leader In Donovan Mitchell

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Teams haven’t played five games yet in the 2022-23 NBA season, but the early returns on the Cleveland Cavaliers have been good. Three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell, acquired via trade from the Utah Jazz over the summer, is proving to be everything the Cavaliers hoped for and more. With Mitchell and a roster full of young talent, they are starting to believe again in Cleveland.

At 26 years of age and in his sixth NBA season Mitchell is a veteran on this Cavaliers team.  Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro are all 22 and younger.

The Cavaliers blew a late game lead in their home opener on Sunday and needed overtime to secure the win. Mitchell made two costly turnovers in the fourth quarter and owned it following the game.

“I’m more poised than that,” Mitchell said. “That shouldn’t happen. We should have been home an hour ago. That’s where my head is at. We’ll take the win, but I promise you for the next day and a half all I’m going to be thinking about is finding ways to execute late game and being the best for my team.
“And I wasn’t. I’m better than that and I will be better than that. It’s better to learn these in a win than a loss.”

That’s leadership.

“That’s just how he is,” Jarrett Allen said. “He wants to do everything right to the best of his ability. Even when he is doing stuff right, he still feels like he is doing stuff wrong. Shows humility. He wants everyone, not to accept him, but to make sure he is doing the right thing.”

The Cavaliers know Mitchell can score. He’s one of the best in the league. He was brought here in part to improve the 20th ranked team in aORTG. But the Cavaliers were fifth in aDRTG, and while Mitchell has never been a noted defender, that’s an area of his game that needs to improve for the team to reach its potential.

It begins with Mitchell showing an interest on that end of the floor and being mindful of the schemes the team is running and putting forth the requisite effort. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff sees Mitchell’s leadership beginning to emerge.

“Just a determination to help the team win,” Bickerstaff said. “The ability to pick his spots, take control of the game when he needs to. The leadership, you know what I mean, the want to carry his teammates with him, the way he embraces his teammates. It’s a needed 37, right? They’re not empty 30s that you’re seeing from him. We need every one of them.”

The Cavaliers have a tradition after postgame wins. Bickerstaff presents a player with the Junkyard Dog award. It is awarded to the player that embraces that dog mentality — hard-nosed, gritty, tough, relentless.

After Sunday’s win, Mitchell was awarded the chain by Bickerstaff.

“It meant a lot,” Mitchell said of earning the chain. “The guys in the locker room, when I saw RoLo get it last time, I was like, ‘Oh, this is pretty dope.’ For me, just to feel a part of the group. They’ve accepted me since Day 1. Just to go out there and continuously just find my way, whether it’s offensively, defensively. Then to get this, ‘It’s awesome.'”

As noted, it’s early and there will be losses to come. But if Mitchell is holding himself accountable like this, in ways we didn’t always see in Utah, that’s a very good sign.

“He’s just a good dude,” Allen said. “That’s what it boils down to. He is easy to talk to; he doesn’t boast about his accomplishments, he is one of the hardest workers every single game in the gym. It’s easy to root for a guy like that and easy to follow somebody’s lead like that.”

Last season the Cavaliers were 31-20 on Feb. 1. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference in aNET rating and a top four seed. An injury to Allen set them back, and Garland needed another reliable scorer and playmaker to help ease the load.

If Mitchell can be what he’s always been offensively and even a net neutral or positive on defense, watch out for the Cavaliers.