Did the Cavs stunt Evan Mobley’s growth by trading for Donovan Mitchell?

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have a future superstar in Evan Mobley, right?

The youngster has virtually all the tools necessary to become an elite NBA player. Everybody knows that. He looked like a special player in his rookie season, and in many ways, he’s looked a little bit better in his sophomore campaign.

But there’s a difference between marginal improvement and a legitimate leap. This season, Mobley hasn’t taken the leap that all Cavs fans know he’s capable of taking, and it’s pretty easy to see why. It has very little to do with Mobley himself and a whole lot to do with the construction of Cleveland’s roster.

The Cavs hurt the chances of a second-year Mobley leap when they traded for Donovan Mitchell in September.

An Unintended Consequence?

By the time the 2021-22 campaign ended, it was clear that the Cavs were going to need someone to step up and play a bigger role alongside Darius Garland going forward. The point guard carried an unreasonably big load for the Cavs at times last season.

Throughout the season, the team had a clear No. 1 option in Garland and a handful of supporting options in players like Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen. But none of those players really did enough on the offensive end to be considered a true No. 2 option, so it was Garland as the top option and then a committee of contributors.

A legitimate No. 2 option was needed for the 2022-23 season, and before the Cavs traded for Mitchell, Mobley was a prime candidate to take on a higher-usage role and become that guy.

That obviously changed when the Mitchell deal went down. As soon as Cleveland landed the 26-year-old from the Utah Jazz, the Cavs had a lethal backcourt featuring two All-Star guards.

Two high-usage All-Star guards.

Mobley’s usage rate is down this season, and that’s not a coincidence. It was 20.4 percent in his rookie campaign, and it’s 18.6 percent this season.

That’s almost entirely a product of the Cavs adding Mitchell to the mix, who has a usage rate of 31.4 this season. Garland, meanwhile, is at 27.4 percent.

Between Mitchell and Garland, Cleveland’s starting backcourt has a massive usage rate of 58.8 percent this season.

That isn’t inherently a problem. But it can have consequences, like, for example, when a 21-year-old player is expected to take a sophomore leap while playing with that backcourt.

Put simply, there isn’t enough usage to go around.

When two starters have a combined usage rate of almost 60 percent, that doesn’t leave much room for anyone else in the starting lineup to play a huge role.

All three of these things are true:

  • Mitchell and Garland are both going to be stars — maybe even superstars — for a long time
  • For as long as they’re stars, they’re going to be high-usage players
  • Both players are under contract with the Cavs for the foreseeable future (Garland until 2028 and Mitchell until at least 2025)

Over the summer, it seemed like Mobley had a chance to evolve into Cleveland’s clear No. 2 option on offense and get closer to reaching his superstar ceiling.

Now, his trajectory has him on track to be the No. 3 option on this Cavs team for the foreseeable future.

With the way the Cavs are currently constructed, when is the door going to open for Mobley to reach his full potential?

None of this is meant as a criticism of the Mitchell trade. Any time you have a chance to inch a little bit closer to an NBA title, you do it. The Cavs did just that by acquiring the three-time All-Star.

But Cleveland seemingly altered Mobley’s timeline by trading for Mitchell, and that’s a reality that can’t be ignored when evaluating the youngster’s second season at the NBA level.

Where Does Mobley Go From Here?

Let’s set a few things straight.

In his rookie season, Mobley averaged 15.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from deep. He posted a true shooting percentage of 54.9.

This season, he’s averaging 14.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 22.5 percent from deep. He has a true shooting percentage of 60.1.

He’s been significantly more efficient this season and is also an improved rebounder, which are two major wins for the Cavs.

Moreover, Mobley was an elite defender the second he entered the NBA, and he’s only gotten better in that regard. This season, he leads the entire league in defensive win shares with 2.2.

He has improved as a player.

Plus, the University of Southern California product was so impressive as a rookie that it’s easy to look at the season he’s having and call it underwhelming. It’s important to keep in mind that he set a very high bar during his first year in the league. That shouldn’t be held against him.

With all that in mind, there are ways for him to inch closer to his superstar ceiling even while he navigates playing alongside multiple high-usage stars.

For one, the consistency of his 3-point shot has tons of room for growth. He’s shown flashes of potential from beyond the arc, but it’s still not a consistent shot for him.

It’s a little discouraging that his 3-point percentage is lower this season than it was in his rookie campaign. Corner 3s have been a particular struggle for him this season.

He’s taking significantly more corner 3s this season than he did last, but he’s making them at a much lower clip (17.6 percent this season compared to 33.3 percent last season).

Moreover, there are nights when Mobley needs to be more aggressive. Over his past four games, for example, he’s averaging just 7.8 shots per contest. Not only do the Cavs presumably want him to find ways to generate more shots than that, they need him to.

The Garland-Mitchell usage concern does have a major impact on Mobley’s shooting volume, but not to a degree where he should ever be taking under eight shots in a game.

There will be growing pains all season for Mobley, and that’s okay. The 2022-23 Cavs are a very different team than the 2021-22 Cavs were, and there’s probably a very short list of people who are more aware of that than Mobley.

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Jason has covered the NBA for multiple years and is very excited about the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers.