What does Donovan Mitchell‘s trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers mean for the Cavaliers’ chances of contending in the Eastern Conference?Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
In a surprising outcome to the summer-long question of whether the Utah Jazz might trade Mitchell, he ended up going not to his hometown New York Knicks but to join an up-and-coming Cleveland team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since LeBron James‘ departure in 2018.
A 44-38 season led by two All-Stars under age 25 (Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland), plus Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley, put the Cavaliers in position to take a bold swing. Mitchell, a three-time All-Star who is just entering his prime (he’ll turn 26 next week) certainly qualifies.
On the other side, the Utah Jazz’s decision to trade Mitchell after moving fellow All-Star Rudy Gobert at the start of the offseason confirms a rebuilding period in Salt Lake City in the wake of six consecutive playoff appearances.
Utah will start the journey with an incredible eight extra first-round picks — seven of them are unprotected — plus three swaps and two players drafted in this year’s first round.
How good was the return for Mitchell? Let’s break things down from both perspectives.
Cleveland Cavaliers get:
Utah Jazz get:
Collin Sexton (via sign-and-trade)
Unprotected first-round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029
First-round swap rights in 2026 and 2028
In a sense, this trade is more reminiscent of NFL team-building. Mobley’s immediate success as the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft gave the Cavaliers the look of a team with a star quarterback on a rookie contract, eager to take advantage of that spending power to accumulate talent before he gets more expensive.
Coming into this summer, Cleveland had one of the league’s cleanest cap sheets, with the potential to create cap space next offseason even after signing Garland to a max rookie extension. Mobley’s rookie deal doesn’t expire until after 2024-25, meaning the Cavaliers can easily add Mitchell’s $30-plus million salary over that span.
Appreciable cap space is now off the table next summer, but Cleveland should still have enough room under the tax line to re-sign both of their rotation free agents, Caris LeVert and Kevin Love, or keep one of them and use the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add to the roster.
Adding Mitchell was the biggest move the Cavaliers could make without dramatically altering their timeline. He gives them a third 2022 All-Star on their roster, something only the defending champion Golden State Warriors can boast.
Fitting Mitchell in will require some adjustments. Despite Garland’s effectiveness, Cleveland wasn’t a high-volume pick-and-roll team last season: Their 65.5 screens for ball handlers per 100 possessions ranked 21st in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking.
Given both Garland and Mitchell ranked in the league’s top 100 in total screens, we can safely expect that to increase significantly, replacing some of the actions initiated through Mobley and Kevin Love in the high post.
Although Garland and Mitchell are both capable 3-point shooters, they share the unusual trait of both having made a higher percentage of their pull-up attempts than catch-and-shoot ones last season. Garland and Mitchell each hit 35% on catch-and-shoot 3s, per Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, putting them a little below league average. However, neither is such a weak shooter to be a liability playing off the ball.
Having two elite shot creators will allow Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff to stagger their minutes and ensure at least one is on the court at nearly all times. That’s important because the Cleveland offense collapsed when Garland was on the bench last season, declining by 10.6 points per 100 possessions according to NBA Advanced Stats.
A backcourt of Garland and Mitchell, both listed at 6-foot-1, presents similar defensive challenges to what the Jazz experienced in the playoffs with Mitchell and Mike Conley. That makes the most interesting aspect of this deal the creative defenses Bickerstaff employed last season.
Taking advantage of his team’s supersized frontcourts, Bickerstaff occasionally unleashed an unorthodox 3-2 zone with 7-foot Mobley at the point of attack, inspired by how Flip Saunders deployed Kevin Garnett early in his Minnesota Timberwolves career.
The zone earned the nickname “Superman,” with Bickerstaff removing his imaginary suit to call it from the sidelines. Such zone defenses could keep opponents from relentlessly attacking Garland and Mitchell with bigger wings or by forcing them into switching pick-and-rolls.
Dealing Markkanen means the Cavaliers won’t have quite as much size at small forward as they did last season, though we can expect the 6-foot-9 Dean Wade to get some minutes on the wing along with LeVert, Isaac Okoro and Cedi Osman.
If Cleveland can avoid falling too far on defense after finishing fifth in defensive rating last season, there’s a good chance an offense that ranked 20th will improve dramatically, potentially putting the Cavaliers in the bottom half of the top 10 on both ends. That kind of combination would surely be enough to make the playoffs outright, even in a more competitive Eastern Conference.
Just how much better Cleveland can get from there will depend primarily on internal improvement. The Cavaliers won’t have much help coming through the draft.
In addition to the three unprotected first-round picks they sent out in this trade, they also gave up this year’s first-rounder (Agbaji) and increased the chances they send their 2023 first-round pick, which is lottery protected, to the Indiana Pacers to complete the LeVert trade. (If Cleveland misses the playoffs, that pick converts to second-rounders in 2025 and 2026.)
Given the way guards tend to develop well into their NBA careers, we can reasonably expect continued improvement from both Garland and Mitchell. And Mobley, at 21, is just beginning his ascent. It’s realistic for the Cavaliers to emerge as legitimate contenders over the next three seasons.
Beyond that, the success or failure of this trade hinges on Cleveland’s ability to retain Mitchell beyond his 2025-26 player option. Because of the way the salary cap is likely to increase in 2025-26, when the NBA will begin new national TV deals, Mitchell would likely have to take less money in a conventional extension than he could make by re-signing as a free agent. That makes an extension a huge long shot under the current rules.
Because this trade to Cleveland makes Mitchell ineligible for the NBA’s supermax extension, the Cavaliers could face a difficult decision entering the final year of his contract in 2024-25. They’d either have to trade Mitchell with limited leverage to recoup some value or risk him leaving outright in free agency during the summer of 2025.
With Allen under contract through 2025-26, Garland through 2027-28 (with no player option) and Mobley not even due an extension until 2025-26, Cleveland shouldn’t have to worry too much about the nightmare scenario of sending Utah a series of lottery picks.
Still, to justify giving up this kind of return, the Cavaliers need to get more than three seasons out of Mitchell.
Given Mitchell’s age and contract, this deal isn’t quite the home run the Jazz managed in the Gobert trade, but I understand why they preferred it to keeping Mitchell or trading him to the Knicks for fewer first-round picks.
The structure of this return confirms what we’ve assumed since Utah traded Gobert: Their priority was draft picks rather than young players, although they got some intriguing ones in this trade.
The Jazz added a second player drafted by another team in this year’s first round, with No. 14 pick Agbaji joining No. 22 Walker Kessler, part of the return for Gobert. 22-year-old Agbaji’s best attribute, the potential for him to contribute immediately as a four-year player at Kansas, isn’t as useful for Utah. Still, he’s the Jazz’s highest-drafted rookie since they acquired Mitchell (the 13th pick) in a draft-night trade.
Sexton’s inclusion is a fascinating part of the negotiation, since it also required him to negotiate a contract (reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski as $72 million over four years) with Utah.
That’s more annually than Cleveland had reportedly been willing to offer, though getting a fourth year could be beneficial to the Jazz. Sexton will be right in his prime during the final season of his contract (age 27) and his salary by that point will be appropriate even if he proves better as a high-scoring reserve — a la Jordan Clarkson, who previously made the move from the Cavaliers to the Jazz — than as a starter.
Lastly, Utah inherits the final three seasons of the contract Markkanen signed with Cleveland via sign-and-trade last summer. With the Jazz, Markkanen should have the ability to return to his natural power forward position after credibly handling a starting role on the wing last season. Markkanen has scored with above-average efficiency at either spot, though his defense is a weakness at both.
Despite the return, Utah trading Mitchell now was probably as much about what else it facilitates. The Jazz can comfortably move on from veterans Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley before the season, sparing the awkwardness of them being caught between two eras of Jazz basketball. It’s possible Utah can get more for Bogdanovic in particular, entering the final season of his contract, now than as a midseason rental.
The Jazz have made it clear they’re looking to improve their own draft pick this season. There may be enough quality NBA players on the roster, at least in the first half of the season, for Utah to avoid one of the league’s worst records. Still, the Jazz have gone from two perennial All-Stars to zero, which should comfortably consign them to the lottery.
Long-term, the question worth asking is whether stockpiling draft picks is the right move in a conference where a handful of other teams (most notably the Oklahoma City Thunder, but to a lesser degree the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans) have already done so.
I think the answer is a qualified yes. Utah is a few years beyond those counterparts in the process, meaning building up at a slightly later point. The Jazz can also reasonably believe their infrastructure gives them a development advantage over other teams, albeit with a new person in charge of that process (first-time head coach Will Hardy, replacing Quin Snyder).
There’s no perfect strategy for long-term basketball success, but accumulating draft picks to trade later — especially from multiple teams — stands a good chance of adding talent to surround the core players Utah drafts with its own picks.
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