clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Cavs are an NBA Finals contender with Donovan Mitchell trade now and in future

The Cavs can contend in the East right now after the Donovan Mitchell trade. They should only get better in the near future.

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz - Game Six Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers were the most pleasant surprise in the NBA last season until the weight of injuries sent their playoff dreams down the tubes. After owning the NBA’s second worst cumulative record over the three seasons that followed LeBron James’ departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs were on-fire to start the 2021-2022 campaign, taking the Eastern Conference’s third best record into the All-Star break (which was actually 70 percent of the way through the season).

Eventually the Cavs ran out of gas thanks mostly to a stagnant offense that dearly missed guards Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, who each suffered season-ending knee injuries. Cleveland would have made the playoffs anyway under the NBA’s traditional postseason format, but they were knocked out in the play-in tournament by the Atlanta Hawks.

The Cavs already had a great thing going for them with two young All-Stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, and a freakish 7-footer in last year’s rookie Evan Mobley. Cleveland could have been content to watch its excellent core develop throughout the 2022-2023 season and beyond with nothing in the way of real expectations. Instead, the Cavs saw an opportunity to add a fourth star late in this offseason, and pushed their chips to the center of the table to get it done.

The Cavs acquired Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz for unprotected first round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029, plus pick swaps in 2026 and 2028. Cleveland included Ochai Agbaji (who they just drafted at No. 14 overall in the 2022 draft), Lauri Markkanen, and Sexton to complete the deal.

It’s a steep price to pay for any player, particularly one who has never made an All-NBA team like Mitchell. It’s a trade that immediately puts pressure on the Cavs to contend in the near future, and limits their future assets to improve the foundation of the team moving forward. It’s also absolutely worth it.

The Cavs suddenly have a convincing argument for the best “big four” in the NBA. It’s a core that will be really good for this upcoming season, and should only get better in the two seasons after that with Mitchell still under contract. While it’s bold to label the Cavs — a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs without LeBron since 1998 — as a true NBA Finals contender before making a playoff appearance, the talent base in Cleveland is now impressive enough to compete at the highest levels of the league if it all comes together.

Here is why the Cavs’ move for Donovan Mitchell should mean big things for Cleveland.

The Cavs have two star players with the two hardest skill sets to find

Every team in the NBA wants great shot creators. Every team also wants two-way big men. The Cavs now have two players who can expertly fill both of those roles, and all of them are in their early-to-mid 20s.

Garland emerged into an All-Star point guard last season as a 22-year-old. He’s a wonderful pull-up three-point shooter, and has excellent vision as a passer, finishing No. 7 in the league in assist rate last year. Garland is also one of the smallest stars in the league (he’s listed at 6’1, 192 pounds), and struggled to create all of the offense for Cleveland last season when Rubio and Sexton went down.

Mitchell is an amazing complement next to him offensively in the backcourt. Mitchell played as a “heliocentric” star in Utah with a sky-high usage rate. He’ll get to split the creation burden with Garland in Cleveland, and the pairing is made even more effective because they are both threats to space the floor and hit threes off the ball. It’s going to extremely hard for defenses to load up against both of them — especially when they also have pay major attention to the two 7-footers inside.

Allen was another surprise All-Star last season after thriving in his role as a lob catcher, shot blocker, and capable rebounder and passer for his position. He has as defined role in the offense: set screens, play from the “dunker’s spot,” and finish everything inside above the rim. He’s also a very good defensive big man who can protect the rim while mostly playing drop coverage but also showing some ability to play other schemes.

Mobley has the potential to be the best piece of all. He’s a 7-footer with an incredible combination of agility and skill. Mobley can roam around the court and erase shots before the opposing offense ever attempts them. He’s just scratching the surface of his offensive skill set, but he’s shown remarkable flashes as a finisher, mid-range shooter, and passer. He should be a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate moving forward, and it’s totally possible he could one day contend for MVP. Mobley’s prime is probably still five years away, but he was already awesome as a rookie. His upside is the biggest key to the Cavs’ title dreams.

The Cavs don’t need much more to complete the roster

It’s easy to look at the Cavs and deem that they need a small forward to complete their starting lineup. While that’s true, the skill sets of their four stars should make finding that player a doable assignment.

The Cavs don’t need a wing who is excellent as a ball handler or passer because Mitchell and Garland check those boxes. Really, the Cavs just need a straight “three and D” style wing that can ... hit spot-up threes and defend big wings, many of whom are stars. That’s not an easy player to find, but it shouldn’t be impossible either, whether Cleveland is making a trade (Caris LeVert could now be trade bait) or trying to sign a free agent to the mid-level exception in future years.

It’s also possible Isaac Okoro turns into that player. Okoro was taken at No. 5 overall in the 2020 draft, and is already an awesome defender. The only problem is Okoro hasn’t shown he can take and make threes with volume yet. Last season he shot an impressive 35 percent from deep, but only did it on 2.3 attempts per game. Cleveland needs a higher volume three-point shooter on the wing, and should prioritize that part of Okoro’s development in the coming years.

All the pieces should fit together in Cleveland

I am historically not a fan of teams built around two small guards because they struggle to hold up defensively in the playoffs. Mitchell’s defense should be a major concern after his pathetic showing defensively in the playoffs last year against the Mavericks. Garland isn’t big or strong enough to be a plus defender either.

If two 6-foot-nothing guards are ever going to be able to survive deep into the playoffs, though, it’s probably going to be with two killer 7-footers like Mobley and Allen behind them.

The Cavs had the No. 20 offense in the NBA last season. They were weighed down by both a lack of ball handlers, and a lack of shooting (they finished No. 20 in three-point rate, or percentage of shots taken from three-point range). Mitchell addresses both areas. He’s a high-volume three-point shooter who can also create off the dribble.

There’s a few swing factors in Cleveland over the coming years:

  • Can Mitchell capably find Mobley and Allen for easy buckets inside? Mitchell’s lowly assist numbers to Rudy Gobert was highly-publicized in Utah, and it’s unclear if that was because of their personal beef, or a hole in Mitchell’s skill set. He’ll certainly need to play “hero ball” less often in Cleveland, and that starts with getting his bigs involved offensively.
  • Can the Cavs find a starting wing who can take and make threes at volume while also being a lockdown defender?
  • Can the Cavs build out the rest of the bench to complement their four stars?
  • Health is also a concern, but that’s the case for every team.

Cleveland legitimately has four top-40 players on the roster now, and that’s a conservative assessment.

The Cavs’ post-LeBron rebuild has been remarkable. Getting in on the James Harden trade to pick up Allen was a stroke of genius. Taking Garland at No. 4 in the 2019 draft (a pick I panned at the time) proved to be a brilliant move. They were lucky to land the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, and even luckier the Houston Rockets passed on Mobley. They were also lucky the Jazz didn’t accept an arguably better package for Mitchell earlier in the offseason.

Of course, every NBA contender needs luck to get there. The Cavs had some, but the front office also did a masterful job building this team. It’s almost unbelievable to consider the Cleveland Cavaliers are this talented without LeBron James, but it’s true. With Mitchell under contract for three more seasons, and Allen, Garland, and Mobley under team control long-term, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe the Cavs can be an NBA Finals contender now and in the near future.