Donovan Mitchell is not happy, but he is hungry.
It’s late Wednesday night at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, where his new Cleveland Cavaliers team, which spent the first three weeks of the season devouring the competition, and which was already upset about a loss to the Clippers two nights before, is downright hangry after falling to the Kings. But as Mitchell fills his paper plate with postgame sustenance inside an otherwise-empty visitors’ locker room, then makes the long walk with his to-go meal through the tunnel and out toward the team bus, it doesn’t take him long to broaden the scope of his view and start appreciating the big picture again.
All things considered, this Cavs experience that he never saw coming before the Sept. 1 trade from Utah is off to about as sensational a start as he could have imagined. Not only are they 8-3 heading into Friday’s game at Golden State, but also the 26-year-old Mitchell is — by his own admission — playing his best basketball of his life.
The three-time All-Star is on a career-high pace in scoring (31.9 points per game; third in the league), field-goal percentage (51.4 percent), 3-point percentage (44.8), true shooting percentage (61.1 ) and assists (5.8). In terms of the Cavs collective, they are second in defensive rating so far, third in offensive rating and second in net rating (8.9, just behind Phoenix’s 9.1).
Even with the back-to-back losses, it’s quite clear that the ceiling on this Cavs’ group is exceptionally high. And with his old Jazz running mate Rudy Gobert coming to Cleveland with his Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday for their first reunion meeting, it’s as good a reminder as any that there’s no sense in dwelling on the past.
“We can really build something special,” said Mitchell, the New York native who was widely expected to be traded to the Knicks before the Cavs deal went down. “And that’s really what I’m hoping for.”
Editor’s Notes: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. (Author’s notes are in italics.)
Why has this team fit you so well? You’ve said yourself that you’re playing the best ball of your career.
I look at who I’ve been in my career — a guy who could score the ball. (But) I’m asserting myself on a different level defensively. Having another dominant guard (in Darius Garland) who can get you 30 (points on any given night) and also having ‘Vert (Caris LeVert), who can do the same, it relieves that pressure a little bit and allows you to be more engaged defensively, to be there and have the energy. And then on top of that, my coaches (head coach JB Bickerstaff and his staff) and my teammates allow me to just go, to be myself — whatever that means.
It’s been scoring for the past few games, but it’s passing, it’s leading. I’m being myself, and honestly I have (former Jazz teammates) Ricky Rubio and Mike Conley to thank for that. Joe Ingles. Theyve taught me different things. So being able to come here in a group where we all have the same intentions (has been good). Last year, I didn’t play my best basketball. I had the worst playoff series of my career. So that stings — being out early. Then you look here, and they were done a week and a half before I was, so they have that same feeling.
In Utah’s six-game, first-round series loss to Dallas, Mitchell averaged 25.5 points (39.8 percent shooting overall, 20.8 percent from 3), 5.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds. It was the third time in his five playoff appearances with the Jazz that they were eliminated in the first round.
The Cavs, meanwhile, started the 35-21 season before being battered by injuries that sparked a downturn (279 missed games in all due to injuries and illness). They finished 44-38, then lost both games of the play-in tournament (against Brooklyn and Atlanta).
They have that same hunger coming into the season, so our interests align. And our timeline, if you look at the group we have, we’re all around the same age. We’re all young. We’re all trying to prove something. And I think that’s the biggest thing.
A quick note for contractual context: While Mitchell is under contract through the 2024-25 season (he has a player option in 2025-26), his 22-year-old backcourt mate and fellow All-Star, Garland, is signed through 2027-28. Their fabulous front court is in good contractual standing as well.
Big man Jarrett Allen, who is 24, is signed through 2025-2026, while 21-year-old Evan Mobley is on his rookie deal through next season (he’s eligible for an extension this summer). Fourth-year forward Dean Wade, who has become a pivotal part of their defense, is signed through 2024-25.
In terms of the other key rotation players, veterans LeVert and Kevin Love are free agents this summer. Sixth-year small forward Cedi Osman is signed through next season, though his 2023-24 salary is not guaranteed. Veteran point guard Rubio, who continue to rehab from his ACL tear in late December and who is close with Mitchell from their time together in Utah, is signed through 2024-25.
So how does this current view of this group reconcile with the moment you heard about the deal? You were on the golf course when you found out, right? What was the instant reaction in your mind when you’re breaking down the basketball fit?
That’s why I said that I wanted to know who was in the trade.
Who were you worried that you were gonna lose?
Darius and (Mobley), JA (Jarrett Allen) — those were the three guys. And I didn’t know the rest of our roster, but Darius and Evan for sure, because I knew what was being asked (of the Jazz in trade talks) from New York.
What all was being asked by New York?
I was told it was RJ (Barrett) and hella (draft) picks. That’s what I heard. And I thought that was happening. I thought that was it. I’m there (on the East Coast) all offseason. I’m there in the summer. So that’s why I thought, “All right, this is gonna be a long haul in Cleveland (if they gave up Garland, Mobley and/or Allen in the deal).” But when I found out those guys were (not in the deal), it was like, “All right, we can really do something. Like, we really could do something.” Nothing to slight the guys that were involved in the deal going to Utah. But for me, it was just like, “We have the talent.” I said it at the press conference: Our talent is scary, but we’ve got to go out there and do it.
So one other thing I haven’t had clarity on is that if you go back to last year, go we had reported that, essentially, if the Jazz were going to move you that you were focused on Brooklyn, New York and Miami.
I never said that. I don’t know where that came from. I didn’t say that. I didn’t say a lot.
Well I’m not even necessarily going down memory lane too much. But more so it’s this: Was Cleveland on your radar at all at any point before the deal went down?
Anything you heard in the news is what I heard. Like, when I said that I heard Cleveland was in there for a second and took their name out, that’s what I thought. So I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t one that was on my radar. I just said, “Look, I’m just gonna play wherever I’m at.” If it came back to training camp in Utah, I’d be ready for that. I took the summer to say, “Look, I played like s— in the playoffs. I wasn’t my best self, and I want to be the best me I could be for wherever the hell I’m at. Wherever the hell I’m at — New York, Brooklyn, Miami, Toronto, OKC, Utah.”
Did you want a change of peace?
I felt it was coming, do you know? So I embraced it and I started to accept it. I mean, yeah. After Rudy got traded, it was like, “Okay, this is the direction we’re going, like, why not?”
(The Jazz) tried to waffle at that time, and said publicly that they had no intent to move Donovan but they wouldn’t call you untouchable.
Well, I didn’t (hear that). I didn’t speak to anybody for a while. For a long time, actually. So I really had no idea what the f— was going on.
How how? Where was your head at?
I don’t know. I just kind of — like I said, I took this summer (to himself) and I’m really glad I did. I took this summer to really just worry about my damn self, and be the best (I could be). And I’m reaping the benefits of it now. That really was the biggest thing for me. Like, I couldn’t care less what happens. But I’m gonna be better. I took that upon myself.
A control-what-you-can-control type thing?
Exactly. And mentally, it was really freeing to do that and it put me in a position where I’m locked in on a certain goal. But I didn’t really speak. I didn’t speak on social media. I didn’t speak to people. I didn’t go to summer league (in Las Vegas). I wasn’t with any of that. I was just like, “Cool, whatever happens happens. You guys (in the Jazz organization) got it.”And I’m thankful I’m here (now) and I’m ready to go.
I know it’s really early, and I know you’ve gotta jump. But when you got dealt with, one of the first questions was your contract and your future with this group. We didn’t see Cleveland coming, so a lot of folks started assuming, “Oh, he’s gonna bounce in a few years.” Then you get here, and you see how good it could be, what’s your level of enthusiasm about the long view?
Yeah, I’m not interested in any of the down-the-road (discussion). But like I said, we have a lot of potential with this group. We have a lot of guys that can really get going. We can really build something special. And that’s really what I’m hoping for. I can’t control what our result is come June, May, our playoff success, our future success. But right now we’ve got a lot of great pieces. And as far as two or three years, I can’t sit here and give you anything. That’s the one thing from this summer that I’m very happy about is I just said, “F— what happens. F — tomorrow. F — the next day.” How can I be — excuse my language, by the way — but how can I just be the best Donovan today and let the rest handle itself? I mean, I’ve got stuff to prove myself. I’ve got to continue to be better.
Well, you’ve been doing that here so far. Is this sustainable, do you think, individually? This is MVP caliber stuff.
I think so. I think so. I believe in myself. I’m confident in myself. I always have been. But at the end of the day, I’ve had 30 (points) the past two games and we haven’t won. So it doesn’t mean s—. That’s where I’m at. Yeah, (he) had 38 but we lost to the Kings. We can’t lose to Golden State. Thats just my mindset throughout the year. And if we win, everything else takes care of itself for the rest of it. I feel I’m one of the best players in this league, and we have two of the best players on the defensive end in this league and two guys who can be All-Defensive team, and Darius Garland is an All-Star guy. We have so many pieces, excluding just myself, that if we just take care of what we’ve got to take care of, everything else will just fall in line.
Last one for you: You’re gonna see Rudy on Sunday. How do you want people to remember that chapter?
You know, we gave Utah a lot of special moments. But you know, we didn’t get the job done. Him and I have a great relationship, despite what people may feel. On the court, it didn’t work. I don’t hate Rudy. He doesn’t hate me. It was just one of those things where it just didn’t work out, and I feel like we live in a world where everybody’s gotta hate each other and there’s gotta be some negative thing and that’s just not the case. When I see him on Sunday, I’m gonna give him a hug and smile and laugh. And when we’re on the court, it’s time to go at it. That’s really what it is.
(Top Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images)