The Cleveland Cavaliers are reportedly interested in Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. They also pulled out of the race for Mitchell.
Both facts make sense. Every team in the league (minus the Jazz, who are apparently trading him) have probably called or at least held a meeting on Mitchell’s acquisition. He’s a 25-year-old All-Star under contract for two more years with a player option for a third. He’s been an All-Star for three years and has averaged more than 20 points every year of his five-year career.
Mitchell was the driving force behind a Jazz offense that finished third in the offensive standings in 2020-21 and first last season, according to Cleaning The Glass. The system they used under Quinn Snyder helped, of course, but he made it work. He is in good faith.
There are concerns with Mitchell. He’s a poor defender – not physical, not engaged on or off the ball and capable of being attacked by apex predator guards and wings. He has a wingspan of 6’10” which, in theory, should allow him to play in passing lanes. He racks up a few deflections and steals, but has no overall impact on defense. The Jazz got around that by having Rudy Gobert, so it makes sense to think the Cavs would think they could do the same with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Pairing Mitchell with Darius Garland – and leaning on the malleability of both – with two frontline aliens certainly has appeal.
But there are downsides for Cleveland to consider. The cost to get it will be high. For one thing, the NBA is a salary cap league. Within reason, there’s not a lot of money teams can spend. The Cavs, if they were to trade for Mitchell, would have Mitchell for two years (assuming he declines his player option) at $30 million plus, Darius Garland on a five-year, $193 million contract starting next year and four years and $80 million left on the Jarrett Allen case. For the 2023-24 season, those three would earn a combined $85.9 million under a projected cap of $133 million and a luxury tax line of $158.1 million, per Spotrac. Add Evan Mobley to $8.8 million and that’s four players for $94.7 million. That rest of that money will go fast.
Mobley’s future contracts are also important here, although there’s likely a cap jump and a new CBA on the horizon. After earning $8.8 million in the third year, his salary jumps to $11.1 million in the fourth year. This sets him up for an extension that would begin for the 2025-26 season – the same season for which Mitchell holds a player option.
Mobley, if he continues on the lane he is on, will command a max rookie extension. Mitchell is going to want a raise. There are CBA rules to consider with the maximum number of rookie players a team can have on its roster at any given time. If the Cavs were to trade for Mitchell, there are future hurdles that must be overcome if they are to keep a core Garland, Mobley, Mitchell and Allen together. And they probably would, because this is a band that could achieve something real.
There is also asset management to consider. In a world where Dejounte Murray scored the first three rounds for the San Antonio Spurs and Rudy Gobert commanded four of the Minnesota Timberwolves, how much will Mitchell command? Five? Six? And that’s before getting into any young talent they want.
Utah, rightly, will ask the world. Leaving the world carries many risks. It is a global movement, committing a team on a certain path. You trade for Mitchell at what it will cost, there is no turning back. Is this what Cleveland should do after a season of play when Garland and Mobley are just getting started?
There is also the young player part. The Jazz would probably ask for one from Garland or Mobley first. Both are banned, so the conversation turns to Allen, a 23-year-old All-Star locked into a reasonable contract. Cleveland, if it has real ambitions to increase the timeline, would likely be reluctant to include Allen.
Let’s say Jazz is good with it. The package must then become picks and a corresponding player salary. The name that comes to mind first is Collin Sexton, still stuck in free agency purgatory. He is, without a doubt, the best young player Cleveland can offer a Utah rebuilding team with Garland, Mobley and Allen off the table. Issac Okoro or Ochai Agbaji, for example, do not move the needle in the same way.
Going from Sexton to Mitchell would be an upgrade. (Mitchland or Garchell won’t stick out the tongue like Sexland, but Cleveland’s t-shirt economy will persist.) Mitchell is a bit taller and more tried and tested. He’s also a better creator with a career assist percentage nearly six points higher than Sexton. (It’s also worth noting that trading Sexton for Mitchell doesn’t solve the defensive problems Sexland got himself into. In a perfect world, which the NBA isn’t, the Cavs would likely go for a bigger guard. or a wing to play against Garland..) Sexton (heading to Utah on a $17 million a year contract), Caris LeVert and a bunch of Mitchell picks are working under league trade rules.
Mitchell is also different from Sexton. For their careers, they basically have the same true shooting percentage (Mitchell is at 55.5%, Sexton is at 55%). But how they get there is very different – Mitchell is three-point heavy, while Sexton is more middle-heavy and rim-heavy. For the purposes of this exercise, the numbers here are from the 2021-22 season for Mitchell and the 2020-21 season for Sexton when he was healthy. Last year, before his season-ending injury, Sexton’s shot pitch distribution was 41% rim, 33% midrange and 26% on three. This, to be fair to him, is a step in the right direction.
The difference matters. The way the league currently works, three-pointers are king – especially from perimeter players. Mitchell can stretch defenses from three in a way that Sexton doesn’t and gives defenses something to think off the ball to a degree that Sexton doesn’t. Lose it off the ball and you make a good shooter look good. Advanced metrics also favor Mitchell over Sexton. And it’s not particularly close.
Sexton, in theory, could change his approach. He’s become a good shooter – the player who dribbled from a wide open corner three his rookie season is long gone – but he’s reluctant to really let them fly. He’s also an underrated cutter, capable of exploding into the lane when the defense leaves an opening. It does more and the value gap could close.
There is also a financial gap to consider. The Cavs, according to Chris Fedor of cleveland.com, recently offered Sexton a three-year, $40 million deal. It’s Jordan Clarkson’s money, not Mitchell’s money. Not even the four-year, $72 million contract Cleveland reportedly offered Sexton last year doesn’t sniff out what Mitchell is doing and will do in the future.
Trade against Mitchell and you’re all-in on that group right now and immediately increase the spend. Dan Gilbert and his family can afford it if they want to. It’s about whether it’s worth entering the luxury tax now and kicking off the rising costs of entering the luxury tax. Regardless of whether NBA owners can afford it — and they can, they’re billionaires — teams generally don’t go into tax until it’s time to contend for the actual title. .
Would Mitchell take the Cavs to this spot immediately and give them a title window in the next 2-4 years with the Garland max coming into play, Mobley’s likely extension max rookie and needing to round out the rest of the roster ? Mitchell not only increases the overall cost, but also complicates when Mobley could sign his deal based on NBA rules for rookie extensions. Is making that kind of all-in move now worth it?
For a Cavs team playing two bigs who can’t shoot — it’s unclear if Mobley can still make three-pointers — having two offensive engines in Garland and Mitchell who space themselves on and off the ball could be really appealing. That’s the root of why they would explore this, cost and risk aside.
It’s also telling, perhaps, that they pulled out of the discussion when it was clear they weren’t going to beat the Knicks’ offer. It looks like the Cavs have decided that going all-in for a player at Mitchell’s level right now isn’t worth the cost. For another player, perhaps a cleaner upgrade, the answer might be different.