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Film Study: Donovan Mitchell addresses Cavaliers' biggest needs

The 3-time All-Star guard adds a new dimension to Cleveland's young and versatile roster.

The 25-year-old guard has high expectations with Cleveland this season.

Donovan Mitchell is exactly what the Cleveland Cavaliers needed.

Last season, the Cavs scored 10.6 more points per 100 possessions with Darius Garland on the floor (113.6) than they did with him off the floor (103.0). That was the fifth biggest on-off OffRtg differential among 261 players who played at least 1,000 minutes with a single team.

Even when Garland was on the floor, he needed some help with the offense. Mitchell, one of the league’s most prolific pick-and-roll scorers, will provide that help. The Cavs are now one of two teams — the Atlanta Hawks are the other — with two of the 14 guards who averaged at least 20 points and five assists last season, and they can have at least one of the two on the floor at all times.

They’re certainly not the best defensive guards in the league, but the Cavs have a pair of bigs who can mitigate issues on that end of the floor.

Here are some notes, numbers and film on what Mitchell brings to Cleveland  …

1. High-volume and, now, efficient

According to Synergy tracking, Mitchell is the only player with at least 500 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions in each of the last five seasons. He’s also seen an increase in efficiency on those possessions every season he’s been in the league, from 0.81 points per possession as a rookie to 1.03 last season. That latter mark was the best among the 13 players with at least 500 ball-handler possessions last season and ranked fifth among the 79 players with at least 200.

Donovan Mitchell pick-and-roll ball-handler efficiency

2017-18 79 660 8.4 9 535 0.81 57 of 86
2018-19 77 857 11.1 3 811 0.95 23 of 81
2019-20 69 798 11.6 4 759 0.95 22 of 75
2020-21 53 594 11.2 4 570 0.96 28 of 73
2021-22 67 806 12.0 4 832 1.03 5 of 79

POSS/G Rank = Among players with at least 35 games played.
PPP Rank = Among players with at least 200 total ball-handler possessions.
via Synergy tracking (regular season only)

Mitchell’s pick-and-roll efficiency is obviously tied closely to his effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, which has also risen every season he’s been in the league, from 43.4% as a rookie to 50.9% last season. His field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers actually dropped last season, but his effective field goal percentage rose because the percentage of those pull-ups that came from 3-point range went from 55% in 2020-21 to 65% in ’21-22.

Only three players — Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry — attempted more off-the-dribble 3-pointers than Mitchell last season.

He’s always had a near-perfect shooting form and he’s become increasingly comfortable stepping into a 3-pointer when the defense doesn’t step up …

Donovan Mitchell pull-up 3-pointer vs. Houston

And he can make something out of nothing late in the clock by creating space and stepping back …

Donovan Mitchell step-back 3-pointer vs. Boston

Mitchell hasn’t always been a strong finisher inside. But his 55.9% in the paint last season was a big jump from 50.3% through his first four seasons and ranked 25th among 97 guards with at least 200 field goal attempts in the paint. He can use both strength and quickness inside, and he can be explosive when he gets downhill …

Donovan Mitchell dunk vs. Dallas

For a three-time All-Star, Mitchell doesn’t get to the line a lot. His free throw rate over the last three seasons (25 attempts per 100 shots from the field) ranks just 47th among 137 guards with at least 1,000 field goal attempts over the last three years.

2. Distribution issues

Mitchell could certainly be more of a distributor. Among 104 ball-handlers with at least 1,000 direct picks* over the last three seasons (including playoffs), Mitchell has the fourth lowest pass rate, having passed on only 32% of those plays, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The only three guys with lower rates were three wings — Dillon Brooks (24%), Jordan Clarkson (27%) and Terrence Ross (29%) — with reputations for being gunners.

* Direct picks are ball-screen plays where the ball-handler shoots or makes a pass that directly leads to a shot.

Mitchell can try to force his way through traffic, and he hasn’t always been willing to pass to an open roll man …

Donovan Mitchell miss vs. Dallas

But with his off-the-dribble skills, Mitchell will consistently create advantages for his team, and he has the ability to make the right reads when he gets the defense in rotation …

Donovan Mitchell assist to Mike Conley

Mitchell’s assist ratio last season (17.4 per 100 possessions used) was a career-high mark. But it still ranked just 27th among 41 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher. Garland had the third-highest assist ratio (27.8) in that group.

3. Ball-handlers off the ball

Garland’s assist ratio was close to that of Mike Conley last season (28.1). But when you combine the scoring and playmaking, he should be the best backcourt-mate that Mitchell has had. Additionally, both guards should benefit from playing alongside each other.

Neither had a ton of off-ball success last season, when Mitchell and Garland scored 1.05 and 0.98 points per possession on spot-up possessions, respectively. Those marks ranked 92nd and 128th among 183 players with at least 150 spot-up possessions, according to Synergy. But we can assume that both will be more efficient off the ball with the other creating bigger advantages than their previous teammates could.

Last season, Mitchell shot just 82-for-237 (34.6%) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, a mark which ranked 87th among 113 players with at least 200 attempts. But he shot 41.5% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers through his first four seasons. Garland suffered a very similar drop-off, shooting 67-for-189 (35.4%) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season after shooting 41.1% on them through his first two years in the league.

Of course, playing off the ball (and “spot-up” possessions according to Synergy) is about more than just catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. And having another ball-handler allows Mitchell (and Garland) to attack the seams of a defense …

Donovan Mitchell drive vs. Charlotte

4. Defensive deficiency

Defense has been an issue for Mitchell, and he had some particularly bad moments on that end of the floor as the Jazz lost in the first round, allowing Dallas (who had the league’s 14th-ranked offense in the regular season) to score 128.3 points per 100 possessions in Games 2 and 3 … without Luka Doncic.

Mitchell had trouble containing the ball, both in transition …

Jalen Brunson drive by Donovan Mitchell

… and in the half-court (closing out and in isolation). Even when he’s able to stay in front of the ball, Mitchell doesn’t provide a ton of resistance.

The Jazz tried to keep Mitchell off the ball, but he can get caught ball-watching, getting beat back-door or on the glass …

Dorian Finney-Smith tip-dunk vs. Utah

Mitchell certainly has the ability to be a better defender. At times, he’s shown a willingness to really work on that end of the floor, both in rotation and on the ball …

Donovan Mitchell defense vs. Houston

Where the Jazz had one big on the floor who can erase mistakes made by the guards, the Cavs will often have two. And as great a defender as Rudy Gobert is, Evan Mobley is more mobile. Still, if Cleveland is going to maximize its potential over the next few years, Mitchell can’t be too much of a liability on that end of the floor.

5. Playoff performer

While Mitchell hasn’t been the most efficient scorer over the last few regular seasons, he has had two incredibly efficient postseasons. In the 2020 and 2021 playoffs combined (17 total games), Mitchell averaged 33.9 points on an effective field goal percentage of 58.5%, shooting a remarkable 68-for-143 (48%) on pull-up 3s.

This past postseason wasn’t so good. Mitchell shot just 7-for-32 (22%) on pull-up 3s in the Dallas series and his overall effective field goal percentage (43.4%) ranked 45th among 48 players with at least 100 field goal attempts in the playoffs.

For Cleveland, just reaching the playoffs would be a step forward. The last time the Cavs got there without LeBron James was 1998, and the last time they won a series without him was 1993. This is more than a one-year project, but this was a very good team last season (the Cavs were sixth in the East when they lost Jarrett Allen for the last five weeks of the regular season), it has a young and improving core, and it has addressed it’s biggest need with a three-time All-Star who’s just 26 years old.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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