Even before he went off for 71 points — 55 after halftime — in an overtime victory against the Chicago Bulls a week ago, Donovan Mitchell had been everything the Cavs could have asked for after trading a lot of assets to acquire the high-scoring guard from Utah this past offseason.
But when Mitchell scored the most points in an NBA game since Kobe Bryant erupted for 81 back in 2006, it seemed to signal his arrival as a top-tier player on a suddenly top-tier team.
“It was crazy,” said PointsBet Senior Trader Sam Garriock. “I was actually trading the game myself. I found myself dealing with that game, and it was interesting because obviously his scoring total was so low to start — he got his first bucket late in the first quarter. We were taking Donovan Mitchell over throughout the game and it just wouldn’t stop. I can’t recall a single bet on the under during the game live. It did sting a little bit, but it was fun to watch.”
Both Mitchell and the 26-15 Cavs have taken a discernible leap this season, with him averaging a career-high 28.8 points per game and the team just percentage points behind the 25-14 Bucks for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. But Ohio’s major mobile sportsbooks don’t yet view Mitchell as a serious contender for MVP, and they also see Cleveland as a cut below Milwaukee and its other top rivals in the East.
Mitchell, Bickerstaff in similar straits
Heading into the season, PointsBet priced Mitchell at 66/1 to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. His odds have since shortened significantly to 35/1, but he still ranks behind Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, and Joel Embiid.
“The Cavs would have to be the No. 1 overall seed for [Mitchell] to have any chance,” said Garriock. “The field is so strong this year. There are six top candidates, and it’s hard to see him knocking off all six.”
Donovan Mitchell had played 47 minutes at this point. He closes out on a shooter and then beats everyone else down the floor for a basket that gives him 63 points on the night. What an absolutely bonkers performance. pic.twitter.com/YbmLsbHyGT
— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) January 3, 2023
J.B. Bickerstaff faces a similar situation in his pursuit of the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award. After finishing fifth last season, Bickerstaff is currently PointsBet’s eighth choice to win at odds of 10/1 — dead even with Utah’s Will Hardy, whose Jazz will host the Cavs on Tuesday night.
“For him to win, it sort of necessitates [Cleveland] having the No. 1 seed,” Garriock said. “I also think it’s easier to point to some of the things that Taylor Jenkins is doing in Memphis. I think Bickerstaff had a better case last year, and he just didn’t get a ton of respect.
“Voters always love to point to one specific thing a coach has done — Nick Nurse going box-in-one during his Coach of the Year season, for example. Bickerstaff being much more of a motivational coach and a guy that plays a less analytic style with two bigs, it’s kind of hard to win over these media voters.”
About those two bigs: Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen have been really good, if not sensational, this season. As Cleveland’s defensive anchors, each has odds of 22/1 to win Defensive Player of the Year — in the ballpark of where PointsBet priced them before the season. Good as they are together, if either is to have a serious chance to win that honor, it’ll likely come at the expense of the other’s health unless Cleveland can finish with the league’s top defensive rating.
Heading into the season, Mobley was assigned 30/1 odds to win Most Improved Player, which in recent years has been awarded to a very good player who ascends to all-star status. Mobley’s been good, but not that good, and his MIP odds have swelled accordingly to 150/1.
“He’s probably been slightly underwhelming, but Mobley was always going to struggle to win Most Improved in this incredible class, where you’ve got three guys — Tyrese Halliburton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and (ex-Cav) Lauri Markkanen — who would win in almost any other year,” Garriock observed. “It’s no slight on [Mobley] not being right at the top.”
Trading Garland a possibility?
The biggest knocks on the Cavs’ roster composition — that their backcourt, with two 6’1” starters, is too small defensively, and that they lack sufficient wing firepower — remain the team’s biggest hurdles to becoming a legitimate title contender in the eyes of oddsmakers.
“If they had a genuinely starting-quality wing, they’d be right in the mix,” Garriock said. “It’s tough, though, because they basically gave up everything they could in the Mitchell trade. Can you trade Caris LeVert and a second-round pick to take on Gary Trent Jr.? How much of an upgrade would that be? But they’d be even smaller starting Trent Jr. next to Garland and Mitchell. So it’s really tough to make one of these smaller moves. As crazy as it sounds, their best addition at the deadline might be Dean Wade coming back from injury.”
But the Cavs do have one card they could play somewhere down the road: They could trade Garland, a superb young point guard who nevertheless is locked in as second banana in the Cleveland backcourt for as long as Mitchell dons the gold and wine.
“The idea was that Mobley and Allen are so good defensively that they’re able to clean up for the struggles that Garland and Mitchell have,” Garriock explained. “But even when Allen and Mobley are on the court, they’re slightly above average with Mitchell and Garland and they’re elite with just Mitchell and no Garland.
“They’re almost certainly not gonna pull the trigger this year, but given that they don’t have too many assets to move in smaller deals, they may have to make a bigger deal down the line. But you’ve got to believe that’s two to three playoff failures away, when Mitchell’s up for an extension.”
Photo: David Richard/USA TODAY