Donovan Mitchell was being hunted by higher level teams than the Cleveland Cavaliers—more dramatic, rumored teams, more brazen teams in big markets with more outspoken ambitions. However, there was no competitive franchise on the board, which required Mitchell is the same as the Cavs. So on Thursday Cleveland jumped the line organize mass trade for the Utah Star Guard, for a lot of money.
Lauri Markkanen, Colleen Sexton, lottery pick Ochai Agbaji, three undefended first-round picks and two spade exchanges. That’s what it takes to make moves at this level. The Cavs were desperate for the traction that comes so naturally to Mitchell, with his fast drives and turf-breaking jumpers. Teams can do without this kind of creativity to some extent, but there is no real way to simulate it. In offense either there is juice or there is none. He finds answers or gets bogged down in questions. Cleveland acknowledged that deficit last season when it was traded in February for Carys LeVert, who — due to timing, injury and the nature of her game — never fully settled into her offensive hitting role. In hindsight, this deal was just a harbinger. Instead of pointing out the problem with the relatively dynamic role player, the Clevelands made a significant bet on the three-time All-Star who was the driving force behind the league’s best regular season offense.
In a way, it’s that simple. Cleveland needed a living, breathing bucket, and Mitchell honestly needed the kind of constant, vigilant defensive support that he enjoyed playing alongside Rudy Gobert and that Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley had to provide. There are nuances to figure out how it all works – a small rear zone and a massive front zone with no clear devices on the flank. However, the move gives the Cavs four stars (or close enough) in Mitchell, Allen, Mobley and Darius Garland who can play each other and cancel each other out in a way that feels organic and dangerous.
Sharing ball duties with Sexton (before season-ending injury) and Ricky Rubio (before his injury at the end of the season) proved to be Garland’s best last year, setting him up for a campaign breakthrough and his first All-Star. However, none of these supporting guards had the same strength to protect the enemy as Mitchell. This deal effectively demonstrates the best-case scenario out of thin air; Mitchell plays a self-fulfilling version of Sexton, a version whose explosive scoring is directly tied to 50-win seasons. He gives the Cavs a reason to play Garland off the ball more often, rather than just an excuse.
Ideally, one of the Cavs’ two leading defensemen should be just over the advertised 6ft 1in, or at least long enough that they don’t feel like they’re being targeted on defense. However, if any team were willing to make up for this, it would be the one with two low-maintenance, high-caliber All-Defensives floating around to fill in the space and close the gaps. In just 52 games, Allen and Mobley have established themselves as one of the league’s most trusted safety nets. Utah’s recent playoff history suggests that this isn’t always enough, but the goal in the first place is to simply do the playoffs are something the Cavs couldn’t do without the help of LeBron James for almost 25 years.
Beyond the widest possible contours, there really isn’t much in common between the Jazz team that Mitchell played for last season and the Cavs team he’s joining now. Cleveland can’t – or at least not should not– Lead the league in 3-point shots like Utah did past two seasons. This team has built their entire mindset around giving Mitchell the space he needs to thrive and built their roster to match. The Cavs are acquiring Mitchell in part so he can provide some of that space and relief to others. There will always be issues with playing two nearly 7 foot games at the same time with fairly traditional games, but creators like Mitchell are making them considerably more navigable. Some adjustment will be needed, not just in intervals but in approach as Mitchell finds balance in a different type of composition. Don’t get too hung up on what the Cavs might look like on day one: who will or won’t start at small forward, how Mitchell and Garland will balance their duties with the rip, and whether the team’s immediate roster will make it through the playoffs. The promise of this deal is in its stock.
Mitchell, apparently the senior statesman of Cleveland’s revamped line-up, will soon turn 26. Allen is 24, while Garland and Mobley are 22 and 21, respectively. Cleveland didn’t just give up a lot of players, first-round picks, and pick trades to Mitchell, he became one of the league’s most impressive young players. Where the Cavs end up this season clearly matters, but not as much as where they will be when Mobley’s game really starts to blossom and Garland does his best. Trading with a proven star rightly speeds up expectations, but it’s far from the last word. We can’t know how this team’s line-up fits because we can hardly tell what Mobley might be like, for example. Cleveland now has a core group that could grow together for years unless Mitchell, who could become an unrestricted free agent in 2025, decides down the road that he’d rather not be a part of it.
At the moment, this is the closest Cavs has to a ticking clock. It is too early; in three years (or four if Mitchell chooses his final season on the contract) there is a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t, what this team needs and what it already has hidden under the surface. Given that the Cleveland Offensive was as confusing as it was last season, those realities may have been hard to see. Stars bring not only victories, fans and hope. They bring clarity.