NBA Monday Musings – is Donovan Mitchell better than ever?

Another week of NBA basketball means a larger pool of data points to take away from. 

This season has seen some concerning starts (hello, Warriors and Clippers. Please don’t yell at me for this Klay Thompson), and some equally standout performances from the game’s elite. The Monday musing starts there, seeing as one of the best two-guards in the association is off to the best start of his career.

Donovan Mitchell demands his respect back

It seemed like the entire NBA world was out on Mitchell after a putrid series against the Dallas Mavericks. It wasn’t just that he failed to live up to expectations in the series, it was that he had so many plays during it that made you shake your head. His passing statistics to Rudy Gobert became laughably bad and he became one of the most underrated assets in basketball. The Utah Jazz lost to the Dallas Mavericks without Luka Doncic to start the series, with  Mitchell’s lack of passing and defensive intensity being the biggest scapegoat. 

Through six games, Mitchell is not only playing back at an elite level, but his numbers are also up across the board. He’s currently averaging a career-high 7.3 assists per game, along with career-best marks from three, from the free throw line and on the defensive end. He’s helped pave the way for a Cleveland Cavaliers team to a 5-1 start without all-star point guard Darius Garland for basically all of the season. 

Mitchell’s defense has been the biggest turnaround to start the season. With his athletic frame and wingspan, it was never a debate if he could play defense, it was just if he wanted to. He’s shown more of a desire so far this season.

Too many times on Utah, Mitchell was busy staring at the ball and caught on back cuts in games. He also wouldn’t work after getting beat on the initial drive. While he’s never going to be a lockdown player on that end, it’s more than a start – it’s a very promising sign for the Cavaliers. Mitchell’s +0.6 defensive box plus/minus is the highest of his career, and the first time since his second year he’s been in the positive. If that continues and he’s not a liability, Cleveland could have the best defensive team in basketball.

Scoring-wise, Mitchell has never had a problem, but we’re seeing glimpses of a smarter offensive player than before. He’s taking fewer 3-point attempts, which is an overall good thing because he took so many awful shots in Utah at times, and is averaging seven free throws a game, compared to just 4.7 last season and six in 2020. That, plus a career-high 11.3 points in the paint per game and 3.2 points per game on fast breaks, shows Mitchell is still growing as a talent, and Cleveland is also doing a great job of putting him in spots to succeed. 

Of course, being able to go downhill and finish like this also helps.

Offensively, there had been a league-wide push by the media to see Mitchell at point guard and he had to fill the shoes out of necessity. Garland was hurt 13 minutes into the season and hasn’t been seen since and Mitchell is making the most of that chance. 

Spida commands so much attention while driving, he should have four or five of these passes easily a game. He’s at a 37.6 assist percentage for the season, which is nearly four percent higher than his previous career high. 

Much was talked about his lack of passing to Rudy Gobert, but he’s showing plenty of it in Cleveland. He still makes some mistakes in the pick-and-roll, he averages over four turnovers a game and his teammates Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen don’t have great pick-and-roll scoring numbers, but it’s just yet another ceiling that Mitchell can break moving forward.

Cleveland still needs to figure out its best five-man lineup and integrate Garland into the fold, making it easier on Mitchell in the process. Small forward remains a question, where Cedi Osman, Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro for six points on 19 shots in their most recent win over New York (Okoro was +24 in the game), but the Cavaliers made the right decision to go all in.

Phoenix is back like it never left

Embarrassed after one of the worst losses in NBA playoff history, the world was ready to write off the Phoenix Suns. As Seahawk legend Geno Smith put it, the Suns didn’t write back. 

After a horrid start to the season in the first half against Dallas in the rematch, Phoenix is back to being a buzzsaw of a regular season team, 5-1 on the year and first in net rating. They battled back to beat the Mavericks in that opener, and have since continued right where they left off as a 64-win team

Earlier last week, the signature moment of Phoenix’s hot start was a 134-105 beat down of the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. In the game, star shooting guard Devin Booker cooked Klay Thompson to the point he was ready to fight him, DeAndre Ayton and Mikail Bridges looked like the two-way forces we expected, Chris Paul had a throwback Point God game and Jock Landale eviscerated the Warriors bench. 

This team is reminding us they are exactly who we thought they were, but there are some questions about how the season progresses for the Suns. Is Chris Paul going to hold up? I ventured this question last week and so far the results outside of the Warrior’s win haven’t been great. Paul is averaging 33 percent shooting from the floor and 29 percent from 3-point land. They don’t need him to be old Chris Paul, but it has to be better than that. If not, Bridges, Ayton and the supporting cast need to go up another level.

That supporting cast also leaves plenty of question marks. They’re getting very high production from Cam Payne, Torrey Craig and Damion Lee, which doesn’t feel sustainable unless those players are just better than we thought they were. They also don’t really make things easier on Paul and desperately need a backup point guard. 

The biggest surprise has been Landale, who not only has replaced JaVale McGee off the bench but he’s been a clear upgrade. He currently has a higher PER than Ayton, averaging 9.4 points and five rebounds per game off the bench. I’m not sure if it’s praise that there’s not much of a drop-off from Ayton to Landale or an indictment on the former No. 1 overall pick, but regardless the rotation is working for Phoenix as constructed.

A lot of this is going to come down to Booker being the best guy on a championship team. He’s been very good to start the season, but he may have more responsibility to be the elite player than ever before.

The Suns still have trade chips available. Jae Crowder isn’t playing as he waits for some team to give him a starting job (thanks player empowerment era) and he could easily net a rotation piece to help the Suns down the stretch. If the Suns get the right piece, they may finally be set up for that NBA Finals run they’ve been waiting for.

Paolo Banchero’s grown man strength

In Avengers: Infinity War, Drax tells Peter Quill that he’s just a dude, while Thor is a handsome, muscular man. That feels like Paolo Banchero, the pirate angel of the NBA. It’s hard not to compare some of the top prospects in a draft class, and it’s even harder to look at him and Jabari Smith Jr. (who’s shown some flashes in his own right) and believe they’re the same age. Banchero is a grown man who can bully veterans around.

Doncic is one of the strongest players in the league and he just brushes him aside. Constantly throughout Banchero’s games, you see moments like this before you realize, again, he’s not even 20 yet. He’s still got a lot of his game to unlock (expected as a rookie), but Banchero looks like a special piece to the Orlando future. 

Scorched earth Tyrese Maxey

When Maxey gets out of the hell that is James Harden’s dribbling vortex, he’s one of the more exciting players in basketball. In the two games Maxey has 20+ shots, the Kentucky product averages 37.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5 assists. This is a double-whammy case of a small sample size and a “well-duh” statistic because if a player gets more shots, they generally have better statistics. With Maxey, however, it feels different. His efficiency is way higher when he gets the ball more, so he might just be a high-volume player.

His game against Toronto on Friday was one of the best games by any player this season, scoring 44 points in the win. He started the game 10-for-10, seven of which came beyond the arc. Philadelphia would be wise to give Maxey more opportunities, even when Embiid and Harden share the floor with him.

Quick hits

  • Grant Williams is the weirdest guy in the NBA, and I’m glad Jayson Tatum is always ready to call him out on it.
  • The best pick-and-roll finishers in the NBA currently? James Wiseman and Nick Richards, average two points per possession. They’re off to terrific starts.
  • Panic-meter watch. Low panic: Golden State, Philadelphia. Medium panic: LA Clippers. High panic: LA Lakers (congrats on a win), Brooklyn. 
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