New York native and fringe superstar guard Donovan Mitchell isn’t coming home after all.
Once the Knicks gave RJ Barrett a four-year contract extension — making it an Olympic sport to find a trade that worked for Utah — the Jazz pivoted and traded Mitchell to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jazz GM Danny Ainge one-upped himself and the haul he got for Rudy Gobert, acquiring Collin Sexton, 2022 14th overall pick Ochai Agbaji, forward Lauri Markkanen, three future unprotected first round picks and two additional pick swaps for the All-Star guard.
Suffice it to say Ainge is happy. Now, so is Mitchell.
Mitchell was reportedly golfing when he got word of the trade and ran around the golf course screaming in excitement. The reason? The Cavaliers did not trade any key fixtures in the deal that brought him to Cleveland. Breakout star Darius Garland, ex-Nets big man Jarrett Allen, Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley and former NBA champion Kevin Love remain on the roster.
Mitchell is the piece that ties it all together, and the Cavaliers were in a unique and picture-perfect position to take a gamble on what could ultimately be a three-year rental. The irony in it all is the belief that a big market would ultimately pry Mitchell from Utah’s clutches. Instead of New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Philadelphia, Mitchell heads from Salt Lake City to Cleveland. The Barrett-for-Mitchell talks might not have come to an end, but merely a postponement. Big markets always tend to win in the end.
Yet the Cavaliers opted to win right now, a valiant effort given LeBron James and players associated with him are the biggest-name free agents to sign a deal in Cleveland since Larry Hughes inked a five-year, $70 million deal to play with young LeBron in 2005. The Cavaliers understand their time is now while Garland is breaking out, while Allen remains under contract, while Love still has something in the tank, and while Mobley takes the next step to becoming a dominant defensive force.
In acquiring Mitchell, the Cavaliers have almost assured their four-year playoff drought comes to an end. Another ex-Net will play a critical role on the East’s newest fun team: Caris LeVert, who could come off the bench in a sixth-man role or start at the three alongside Mitchell and Garland.
In some significantly lesser respects, the Cavaliers took a page from the Nets’ book of roster construction. In 2019, the Nets traded D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and signed Kyrie Irving as a free agent. The following year, Brooklyn surrendered its draft assets and young players — including both Allen and LeVert — to acquire James Harden.
The idea behind the deals was simple: Any time you have an opportunity to acquire multiple elite-level players, you do it 11 times out of 10. The Cavaliers, much like the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic, know how difficult it is to sell a superstar player on a small market. When the opportunity to land Mitchell arose, Cavs GM Koby Altman pounced.
And now, it’s up to the X’s and O’s. For all of Mitchell’s offensive greatness, he is undersized at the two and has known shortcomings defensively. That’s going to be Cleveland’s Achilles heel — size in the back court — because both Mitchell and Garland check in at 6-1.
Thus the ceiling for this three-year rental, barring a second seismic trade that brings another star-level player to Cleveland, remains conservative. Mitchell is undoubtedly a star, but in the Eastern Conference, he might not be a Top 10 player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Durant, Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Harden and Trae Young are all head-and-shoulders above Mitchell, and both Jalen Brown and Bradley Beal are in the discussion.
There’s also the evidence from Mitchell’s time in Utah, where he led a Jazz team specifically tailored to his defensive shortcomings but couldn’t advance beyond the second round. The East won’t be any easier. Those days are long gone.
Yet three things are certain in the aftermath of this Mitchell deal: The Jazz aren’t done making trades. It’s a clearance sale in Salt Lake City — everything must go — and Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson will each fetch Ainge the assets he needs to rebuild this franchise in the years to come.
The Cavaliers will see attendance and fan support unlike they’ve seen since LeBron led the team. That’s what happens when you take a gamble to win now and acquire one of the biggest names in all of sports.
Lastly, a Mitchell move to New York isn’t completely over. It’s only postponed, and three years from now, it could be the Knicks — or the Nets — negotiating with Cavs GM Koby Altman, a Brooklyn native.