The Cavs Are In It To Win It

Wow! What a way to start the holiday weekend!

To recap: the Cleveland Cavaliers have traded for Utah guard Donovan Mitchell. In exchange, they gave up Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, rookie Ochai Agbaji, three firsts, and two first-round pick swaps.

The Cavs had been on the fringes of the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes for weeks but swept in with a strong offer after the Knicks refused to give up what Utah wanted. The package might’ve been Utah’s second choice, but it’s a nice haul. Markkanen was a highly-touted big man with a smooth stroke and surprising athleticism. Injuries and inconsistency have taken some of the shine off the Finnish apple, but he still started for the Cavs last year and performed decently while playing out of position as a small forward. Markkanen can’t protect the rim, but he was better than expected defending in space and is a proven shooter. At just 25, he can still improve, and he has shown enough upside on offense to be worth Utah’s time.

Sexton is an interesting player because it’s so easy to tell any story you want about him. He’s just a season removed from scoring 25 points per game on excellent shooting splits. High-usage, efficient scorers are the hardest archetype to find in the NBA, which should have made Sexton a sought-after commodity.

And yet, he lingered in restricted free agency without much interest from the Cavs or the rest of the league. Sexton rightly saw himself as worthy of mansion money, but he has enough warts to concern the people who sign checks. For one, he belongs to the Russell Westbrook school of defense: he tries hard on the ball and makes mean faces, but it doesn’t actually add up to anything helpful in a team setting. For another, teammates have repeatedly accused him of ballhoggery over the years, which is a tough reputation to shake even when it’s unwarranted. He’s also small, an issue when paired with the Cavs’ ascendant point guard Darius Garland.

The final piece, Ochai Agbaji, is a rookie 3-and-D player who should fit nicely onto just about any team, but concerns about his age and athleticism had draftniks questioning his ceiling.

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Three picks and two pick swaps (notably, the Cavs still have their 2024 first-round pick, when a certain superstar’s scion becomes draft-eligible) are also tasty, and the Jazz have to be pleased to come away with three flawed-but-interesting young players and a bevy of picks. Sexton, in particular, is not my cup of tea but has shown enough that he deserves another chance at big minutes. He immediately steps in as the most proven commodity in Utah and should get as many shots as he wants (and he wants a lot of shots). I’ll watch his progress with interest.

But that’s enough about the Jazz. They’re rebuilding, and they’ve done a great job maximizing their value by trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. At this point, further talk about Utah becomes speculation. Let’s get to the meaty stuff.

To summarize the tweet above, Donovan Mitchell is really good at basically every offensive skill. He’s the generationally wealthy man’s Collin Sexton.

Spider can score from all three levels; he’s an underrated passer who has averaged over five assists per game each of the last two seasons; he can bomb off the dribble or the catch. He has a handle as tight as an anaconda’s embrace and hops like a kangaroo— don’t forget that he won the dunk contest just a few years ago.

Mitchell’s a superb driver, equally capable of blowing by flat-footed defenders or bumping bigger players out of the way:

Mitchell is adept at using his elbow and shoulders to knock defenders off-balance and create easy scoop layups for his long arms (he shot 65% at the rim, an astonishing figure for someone who stands 6’3” with thick socks). He’s a master of change of pace dribbles and stutter steps, living his whole life in staccato.

Teams have to respect the pull-up three-pointer, and Donovan knows how to use that gravity to his advantage. He loves to split pick-and-roll defenses and trusts his athleticism and skill to carry him through or around rotating defenders that are always a half-beat late:

The uneasy relationship between Mitchell and Gobert overshadowed both players’ individual talents. Mitchell’s passing, in particular, is underrated. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley should feast on the alley-oops that Donovan honed playing next to Gobert. Mitchell is also more than capable of the classic drive-and-kick, and he’s able to sling difficult passes to open players with both hands.

Mitchell is an offensive engine unto himself, and unlike many of his peers, he’s already proven it in the playoffs. Although he struggled this past postseason on a Utah team that had become disjointed and unhappy, he’s had some monster performances in the past, including 36.3 points on silly 53% FG% against Denver in a seven-game battle in the bubble that saw him score 44, 51, and 57 points in three separate games. Mitchell is one of just four players to top 50 twice in a single playoff series, alongside Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson… and Jamal Murray.

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Murray, in fact, scored his two 50-point games against Mitchell’s Jazz (that series was fun as hell, in case you couldn’t tell). And while that didn’t fall entirely on Mitchell, it doesn’t help his defensive case much. Mitchell has a 6’10” wingspan and had a robust defensive motor in college, but his attitude and aptitude have fallen off in the pros. He’s shown flashes but hasn’t consistently defended at a high or even medium level, and that could be a problem next to the similarly-challenged Darius Garland in Cleveland.

Luckily, the Cavs have two of the best defensive bigs in basketball in center Allen and sophomore power forward Mobley. That duo will be cleaning up many messes, but they should be up to the task. Depending on how coach JB Bickerstaff feels, Cleveland’s fifth spot on the floor could either be another defensive stopper (Isaac Okoro), a sweet-shooting big man (Kevin Love), or another offensive playmaker (Caris LeVert, for a traditional wing, or Spanish passing savant Ricky Rubio).

The Cavs now have some exciting lineups to play with. The quicksilver Garland spent last season doing his best Steph Curry impression, bombing from way behind the line and shimmying into the lane for high-arcing floaters. The stronger and more athletic Mitchell will provide a beautiful contrast to Garland’s dancing style. Both players have experience moving without the ball and shooting off the catch, which should help limit the your-turn-my-turn tendencies that many binary star systems encounter.

I am extremely excited to see if Bickerstaff is willing to risk a defensive nightmare with all three of Garland, Mitchell, and the slightly bigger, pass-first Ricky Rubio on the floor simultaneously — perhaps no team in the league could match that amount of pure playmaking. Rubio is a top-five passer playing today, and Mobley and Allen are decent-to-good passers for their position. That lineup could create beautiful symphonies together when Rubio returns from his injury.

They might also give up 150 points per game! The defensive burden on Mobley and Allen is no joke, but you can see what Cleveland wants to do here. With four All-Star-caliber players on the roster, and at least four players playing vastly different roles available for the fifth spot, the Cavs can play a variety of styles to start and finish games. Garland and Mitchell are two of the most dynamic guards in the league, and unlike, say, Atlanta, both guards are equally comfortable playing with or without the ball. They’ll be a perfect fit next to each other on offense. There is a world where the Cavs can hover around tenth in the league on both offense and defense, marks that traditionally signify a genuine contender.

Cleveland still doesn’t have the top talent of the East’s giants, but they’re going for a different approach. It’s not a perfect comparison, but they remind me a bit of the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, who despite having zero top-10 players rode a well-rounded roster full of above-average players to 60 wins and a Conference Finals appearance.

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Of course, LeBron James and the Cavaliers summarily swept that Hawks team. When you go deep into the playoffs, the best players still tend to come out on top, and as good as Mitchell is, he’s not as good as Giannis, Embiid, or Tatum.

But he can be, for a series, at least. His presence gives the Cavaliers a puncher’s chance against any opponent in the short term. The NBA has never been more open despite the oodles of talent around the league. Too many teams wait for a perfect opportunity before trying to win a championship, but Cleveland has decided that they’re going for it now. If Donovan and Garland can become simply mediocre defenders, this will be the dark horse team that nobody wants to face. And with all of their core pieces 26 years old or younger, the Cavs have an opportunity to grow into even more in the seasons to come.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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