CLEVELAND, Ohio – I called a veteran NBA executive about the Cavaliers big trade for Donovan Mitchell.
To recap the trade: Cleveland sent Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji and first round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029 to Utah for All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. Utah and the Cavs also agreed to swap picks in 2026 and 2028, the highest selection going to Utah.
The executive is not associated with the Cavs or has any personal agenda. I expected him to have some of the same concerns I have about the deal – the small backcourt, trading three first-round picks, weakening the defense.
“All of that is true,” he said. “But you’re missing the big point.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
He explained the Cavs are “in a unique situation.” They already have three young players under long-term team control in Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Then you add in Mitchell, a career 24-point scorer who is under contract for three more years. Mitchell turns 26 on September 7.
“It’s rare to have four talented young players (ages 21-to-26) together,” he said. “It’s not a one-year thing. This is a chance to take a big swing to really do something in the East – you have to take it.”
Garland and Allen made their first All-Star team last season. Mobley looks like a future All-Star. Mitchell is a 3-time All-Star. The executive stressed how Mitchell “is young, but farther along than some of the Cavs’ other players.”
Mitchell has played in 39 post-season games, averaging 28.3 points. Mobley, Allen and Garland’s playoff experience is limited to a pair of “play-in” tournament games last season.
A DIFFERENT LOOK ON OFFENSE
The Cavs rated 20th in total offense last season. They especially struggled to score near the end of the year when opposing defenses concentrated on shutting down point guard Garland.
Remember Cleveland’s 107-101 loss to Atlanta in the final “play-in” game? An exhausted Garland tried to carry the offense. He was 9 of 27 from the field for an ugly 21 points. That game was one of the reasons the Cavs front office was looking for another guard who can score.
The executive talked about Mitchell’s ability “to get anywhere he wants on the court to score. I think he and Garland can learn to play together.”
I was told the Cavs have several internal statistics showing how Garland is very productive “off the ball,” meaning running off picks to get open and taking shots. He showed that when paired with Ricky Rubio last season. They had the best plus/minus ratio of any two players last season in the NBA.
Rubio has re-signed with the Cavs. The veteran guard played two seasons with Mitchell (2017-19) in Utah. So there is a good chance the guards can develop chemistry quickly. Mitchell did average 5.1 assists last season, so he can pass.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
I wasn’t happy about the inclusion of Markkanen in the trade. The executive stressed the presence of 7-footers Allen and Mobley “can cover up for almost anyone at small forward.” He speculated the Cavs would probably play 6-foot-6 Isaac Okoro at small forward.
“I don’t think they’ll miss Markkanen as much as you do,” he said. “It’s no disrespect to him, it’s just that Allen and Mobley are so unique defensively. It can be like when David Robinson and Tim Duncan played together in San Antonio.”
He didn’t mean Allen and Mobley were headed to the Hall of Fame like those Spurs stars. But those two 7-footers changed games defensively, much like Allen and Mobley did last season.
The executive isn’t the only NBA person who told me that Mitchell “can be better defensively.”
Mitchell played two seasons at Louisville, averaging 11.7 points and shooting 41%. He was known for his defense and athleticism when Utah made him the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft. Can the Cavs bring that old mindset back?
“With those guys, they should always have at least two good players on the court at the same time,” he said. “That’s a big deal. Even when you sub, you should avoid having really bad combinations on the court.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DRAFT PICKS?
The executive I talked to is old school, still somewhat shocked by all the first-round draft picks being traded around the NBA.
Before making the Mitchell deal with the Cavs, Utah traded Rudy Gobert to Minnesota for FOUR first-round picks! They also added three players, including Minnesota’s top pick in the 2022 draft.
The Cavs sent three first-rounders and their top pick in 2022 (Agbaji) to Utah along with Sexton and Markkanen.
The new theory is teams can trade more first rounders partly because teams also are willing to trade first-round picks – especially those out of the lottery. So you can trade your picks now and trade for more of them later.
“The Cavs have at least a 3-year window with these young guys,” said the executive. “Three years is an eternity in the modern NBA.”
The Cavs have not made the real playoffs (not the play-in) without LeBron James since 1998. The last time they won a playoff series without James was 1993.
“They have a chance to do something special,” said the executive. “It’s the right time to go for it.”
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