There were higher-profile teams in the hunt for Donovan Mitchell than the Cleveland Cavaliers—more dramatic teams, more heavily rumored and reported teams, more brazen teams in bigger markets with balder ambitions. Yet there wasn’t a competitive franchise on the board that needed Mitchell as much as the Cavs did. So on Thursday, Cleveland jumped the line by arranging a massive trade for Utah’s star guard, at no small cost.
Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, lottery pick Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks, and two pick swaps. That’s what it takes to make moves at this level. The Cavs were desperate for the kind of propulsion that comes so naturally to Mitchell, with his quick-twitch drives and coverage-busting jumpers. Teams can do without that sort of creativity to a point, but there’s no real means of faking it. An offense either has juice or it doesn’t. It finds answers or it gets bogged down in questions. Cleveland acknowledged that deficit last season when it swung a February trade for Caris LeVert, who—due to timing, injury, and the peculiarities of his game—never fully settled into his role punching up the offense. In retrospect, that deal was merely a precursor. Rather than gesture at the problem with a relatively dynamic role player, Cleveland made a significant bid for the three-time All-Star who was the driving force behind the league’s top regular-season offense.
In some ways, it’s that simple. Cleveland needed a living, breathing bucket, and Mitchell, frankly, needed the kind of constant, vigilant defensive support he enjoyed playing alongside Rudy Gobert, and which Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley should be able to provide. There are kinks to sort out in how it all works—an undersized backcourt and massive frontcourt, without clear fixtures on the wing. Yet this move sets up the Cavs with four stars (or near enough) in Mitchell, Allen, Mobley, and Darius Garland, who can play off of and compensate for one another in a way that feels organic and dangerous.
Sharing ballhandling duties with Sexton (before his season-ending injury) and Ricky Rubio (before his season-ending injury) brought out the best in Garland last year, setting him up for a breakout campaign and his first All-Star berth. Neither of those supporting guards, however, had anywhere near the pull on opposing defenses that Mitchell does. This trade effectively manifests a best-case scenario out of thin air; Mitchell plays a self-actualized version of Sexton, a version whose explosive scoring translates more directly to 50-win seasons. He gives the Cavs a reason to play Garland off the ball more often, and not just an excuse.
Ideally, one of the Cavs’ two lead guards would be slightly taller than a listed 6-foot-1, or at least long enough that they didn’t feel so much like a target on defense. If any team were prepared to compensate, however, it would be the one with two low-maintenance, All-Defensive-caliber bigs floating around to fill space and plug gaps. In just 52 games together, Allen and Mobley established themselves as one of the league’s most reliable safety nets. Utah’s recent playoff history would suggest that isn’t always enough, but the objective, first, is to simply make the playoffs—something the Cavs haven’t managed without the assistance of LeBron James in almost 25 years.
Beyond some of the broadest possible contours, there really aren’t many similarities at all between the Jazz team Mitchell played for last season and the Cavs team he joins now. Cleveland can’t—or at least shouldn’t—lead the league in 3-point shooting frequency like Utah did the past two seasons. That team predicated its entire worldview around giving Mitchell the space he needed to thrive, and built its roster to match. The Cavs acquire Mitchell now, in part, so that he might confer some of that space and relief for others. There will always be logjams that come from playing two near 7-footers with fairly traditional games at the same time, but creators like Mitchell make them significantly more navigable. It’ll take some adjustment—not just in spacing, but in approach, as Mitchell finds the balance of a different kind of roster. Don’t get too bogged down in what the Cavs might look like on day one: who will or won’t be starting at small forward, how Mitchell and Garland will balance their responsibilities off the rip, and whether the immediate makeup of the team passes playoff muster. The promise of this deal is in its headroom.
Mitchell, as the apparent elder statesman of Cleveland’s new-look lineup, is about to turn 26 years old. Allen is 24, and Garland and Mobley are 22 and 21, respectively. Cleveland didn’t just give up a trove of players and first-round picks and pick swaps for Mitchell—it rounded out one of the league’s most impressive young cores. Where the Cavs will end up this season clearly matters, just not as much as where they will when Mobley’s game really starts to blossom and Garland settles into everything he can do. Trading for a proven star rightly accelerates expectations, but it’s the furthest thing from a final word. We can’t know how the composition of this team fits because we can hardly say what Mobley, for one, could even be. Cleveland now has a foundational group that could grow together for years, unless Mitchell—who could become an unrestricted free agent in 2025—decides down the line he would rather not be a part of it.
At the moment, that’s the closest thing the Cavs have to a ticking clock. It’s early yet; there’s a lot that can be learned in three years (or four, if Mitchell opts in for his final season under contract) about what works and what doesn’t, what this team needs and what it already has, hidden just beneath the surface. With Cleveland’s offense as muddled as it was last season, those realities might have been difficult to see. Stars don’t just bring wins and fans and hope. They bring clarity.