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Does Cavs’ Plan to Keep Backcourt Duo Together Make Sense?

Cleveland Cavaliers president Koby Altman

The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t had this much drama since LeBron James was in town.

Losing steam throughout 2023-24, their season was punctuated by bitter defeat. Firing culture-builder J.B. Bickerstaff soon after, the Cavs’ primary offseason task is now finding a head coach who’s better at player development. However, Bickerstaff’s coaching was only one of Cleveland’s problems.

The Cavs are also considering parting ways with Jarrett Allen after he refused to play through injury are understandable. A team that’s known to lack toughness, Allen’s unwillingness to sacrifice for his teammates may have closed the door on his future in Ohio. That said, Allen’s fit alongside Evan Mobley has also been a matter of debate due to a small but significant overlap in their offensive strengths.

This is a problem that extends to their backcourt as well. Two star guards who are at their best with the ball in their hands, the backcourt duo of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland has been a mixed bag. Their first season together went swimmingly, but in 2023-24, they were like a fish out of water. Complicating matters are rumors that Garland will request a trade if Mitchell stays.

Yet, when asked by reporters whether he envisions Cleveland Cavaliers breaking up the duo, Cavs general manager Koby Altman responded in the negative:

“I don’t see why we should,” he says (h/t Cleveland Magazine’s Danny Cunningham).

Does Cavs’ Plan to Keep Backcourt Duo Together Make Sense?

“I think there’s way more data that speaks to it works than doesn’t,” Altman begins, explaining why concerns about the pairing are “overblown.”

“In the last two years combined —because they’ve been together two years —there’s a lot of data we can look at, right? Over the last two years, including the playoffs, they’re a net positive +5.0 together on the floor,” Altman says.

“Everyone wants to throw out the first year together, when Darius actually had one of the best years of his career,” Altman continues. “He wasn’t an All-Star, but he had more efficiency, and that was with Donovan.”

To Altman’s point, Garland did have one of his best seasons in his first year with Mitchell. He found a harmonic balance with Mitchell on offense and played with more fire at the defensive end. He also shot a career-high 41.0 percent from 3 (though his efficiency inside the arc fell by -2.0 percentage points compared to the previous season).

Heading into the 2023 NBA Offseason, nobody questioned their fit.

However, in a ‘what have you done for me lately’ league, Garland’s most recent season takes precedence. It’s also necessary to focus on his 2023-24 campaign because it leads to an eye-popping revelation about his first year playing beside Mitchell.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Garland looked like he regressed in 2023-24. This is partially because his numbers dropped, the floor general averaging 18.0 points and 6.5 assists per game on 44.6 percent shooting from the field and 37.1 percent shooting from 3.

That said, his averages and percentages look fine in a vacuum. However, they’re not at an All-Star level like they were previously. In fact, it was his first season averaging below 20 points and 7 assists per game since his sophomore season. His field goal and 3-point percentages were the lowest they had been since his rookie season.

It was also apparent that Garland was less capable of taking over games with his scoring. Perhaps the 12 pounds he lost after breaking his jaw in mid-December played a part in why he often looked so pedestrian when he penetrating the lane.

Timid and turnover-prone, Garland shot 42.2 percent from the field goal after the All-Star Break. In this time, he only made 40.0 percent of his shot attempts when driving. He also turned the ball over 27 times, tied for the eighth-highest total in the NBA with Portland Trail Blazers rookie Scoot Henderson.

Ball Without You

Yet, when Garland played without Mitchell in 2023-24, he averaged 20.0 points and 6.9 assists per game.

He still hadn’t proven himself capable of leading the Cavs to victory as the focal point of the offense, Cleveland going 5-6 when he attempted 20 or more field goals. He shot below 43 percent from the field in six of those contests. However, he was more aggressive, and that’s what was most important. Usually out of necessity and with opportunity, Garland had several All-Star-esque performances.

This alone doesn’t prove that he and Mitchell are an ill-fated pair. It does generate interest in what his numbers were without Mitchell in their first season together though.

To that point, in 10 games without Mitchell in 2022-23, the Indiana native averaged 25.5 points and 9.0 assists per contest.

Ultimately, Altman is right to say that there’s a lot of data out there. While downplaying them, he acknowledges that some numbers point to a suboptimal fit between Mitchell and Garland. Still, he wants more time to see how they play together.

“I think the other thing that we have to realize is that this is just Year 2 of this iteration of this team,” Altman says. “Zooming out a little bit, when you look at some of the most successful teams over the past decade —that have real success in the playoffs —they’ve had a long run at this thing.”

He’s clearly dreading it, but he has to make a tough decision eventually.

Mitchell is the Cavs’ best player but can leave as a free agent as early as next season. If they don’t agree to a contract extension before then, they run the risk of losing him for nothing. This is problematic in and of itself.

However, compounding the issue is the possibility that Garland pushes for a trade if Mitchell stays. That makes Cleveland’s situation a nightmare. The wrong gamble could lead to both Garland and Mitchell leaving.

Show Me the Money

Garland’s motivations for a trade request might not just be about his box score numbers being box office.

His agent, Rich Paul, alluded to his value being at the mercy of an ever-changing league. To that point, Garland will be eligible for a supermax contract extension if he makes an All-NBA team by 2028. Playing alongside Mitchell, he may not be able to accomplish this. However, that escalator only kicks in if he remains in Cleveland.

Still, when considering his next contract, the fact that he’ll be in the prime of his career should be considered. Garland is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2028, when he’ll be 28 years old. As a result, even if he doesn’t sign a supermax, he should be signing the most lucrative deal of his career.

Yet, in either circumstance, his potential earnings will be dependent upon the perception of his ability. A multi-time All-Star will earn a lot more money than a one-time All-Star who regressed. The category Garland fits in may be tied to his partnership with Mitchell.

Cavs Crossroads Puzzle

The quickest solution for the Cavs seems to be trading Garland.

His situation may not be resolved any other way. However, he also has significant trade value, and any number of teams could be interested. If the plan is to keep Mitchell in Ohio, then bringing a sidekick he can have more chemistry with is ideal. To that point, if the Cavs want to convince Mitchell to stay —and they should —then they need to be competitive and keep him comfortable.

They may feel more confident about trading Garland if they know Mitchell is under contract for a few more seasons.

Nonetheless, in what’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, someone has to blink first. Because Mitchell has the leverage, it’ll probably be the Cavs. That is, unless Cleveland believes Garland can mirror Mitchell’s production. If so, it makes it easier for them to move Mitchell ahead of the 2024-25 trade deadline should he still be ambivalent about a long-term Cavs deal.

Essentially, any trade that includes Garland or Mitchell should wait until next season, at the earliest.


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