Donovan Mitchell

Do the Cavaliers have a better shot at making the playoffs now that they have acquired Donovan Mitchell?

Despite speculation all summer that the Utah Jazz might move Mitchell to his hometown New York Knicks, he ended up signing with the up-and-coming Cleveland squad, which has not made the playoffs since LeBron James’ departure in 2018.

The Cavaliers have two All-Stars under the age of 25 (Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland) and Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley to thank for their 44-38 record this year. Three-time All-Star Mitchell, who turns 26 next week and is just getting started in his prime, fits the bill.

Conversely, despite making the playoffs for six straight years, the Utah Jazz has decided to start over and confirm a rebuilding era by trading Mitchell after already trading fellow All-Star Rudy Gobert earlier this offseason.

Utah will go on its quest with an unprecedented eight additional first-round picks, seven of which are unprotected, in addition to three swaps and two players selected in this year’s first round.

What kind of profit did Mitchell make? Explain it to me from your point of view and I’ll explain it to you.

There are some parallels to be drawn between this trade and the process of assembling an NFL squad. Cavalier’s general manager David Griffin said the squad had the look of a team with a star quarterback on a rookie contract because of Mobley’s early success after being selected third overall in last year’s draft.

After signing Garland to a max rookie extension, Cleveland still has one of the league’s cleanest cap sheets and can make room for free agents in the next offseason. The Cavaliers have plenty of room in their budget to pay Mitchell’s $30 million plus salary and still keep Mobley under contract until after the 2024-25 season, the final year of his rookie contract.

Even though the Cavaliers have lost a lot of budget space for next summer, they should still have enough to re-sign Caris LeVert and Kevin Love (two of their rotation free agents) or keep one of them and use the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add to the squad.

The addition of Mitchell was the most significant move the Cavaliers could make without significantly affecting their schedule. They now have three 2022 All-Stars on their roster, matching the current champion Golden State Warriors.

Some modifications will be needed to accommodate Mitchell. Despite Garland’s efficiency, Cleveland wasn’t a heavy user of the pick-and-roll last season; in fact, their 65.5 screens for ball handlers per 100 possessions ranked 21st in the NBA.

Screening should rise substantially, as both Garland and Mitchell are in the top 100 in the league in total screens and should take over for Mobley and Kevin Love at the high post.

Despite their respective 3-point shooting prowess, Garland and Mitchell have something in common: they both made a higher proportion of pull-up shots than catch-and-shoot shots last season. According to Second Spectrum’s tracking on NBA Advanced Stats, Garland and Mitchell are both somewhat below average in terms of their percentages on catch-and-shoot threes (35%). Neither, however, is a good enough shooter to be a hindrance off the bench.

Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff will be able to keep at least one of his two great shot makers on the court at all times by staggering their minutes. That’s significant because, as seen by NBA Advanced Stats, the Cavs’ offense tanked when Garland was on the bench last year, falling short by 10.6 points per 100 possessions.

Garland and Mitchell, both of whom are listed at 6 feet 1 inch, would offer defensive issues for the Jazz that are analogous to those posed by Mitchell and Mike Conley in the postseason. Therefore, Bickerstaff’s innovative defensive strategies from the previous season are the most intriguing part of this transaction.

Inspired by how Flip Saunders employed Kevin Garnett at the outset of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bickerstaff periodically released an unorthodox 3-2 zone with 7-foot Mobley at the point of attack to take advantage of his team’s supersized frontcourts.

The area was given the moniker “Superman” after Bickerstaff took off his make-believe costume to make the call. If the defense is a zone, it will prevent the other team from being able to consistently pressure Garland and Mitchell with larger wings or by constantly rotating pick-and-rolls.

With Markkanen gone, the Cavaliers won’t have quite as much size at small forward as they did last season. However, 6-foot-9 Dean Wade should see some time on the wing in addition to LeVert, Isaac Okoro, and Cedi Osman.

Cavaliers could finish in the top half of the league in both phases of the game if their defense doesn’t take a significant step back after finishing fifth in defensive rating last season and their offense, which finished 20th, improves significantly. Even in the tougher Eastern Conference, that lineup would be good enough to guarantee a postseason berth.

How much better Cleveland can go from there depends largely on the city’s own development. The Cavaliers won’t get much help in the draft.

They sent out three unprotected first-round picks, gave up their first-rounder from this year (Ochai Agbaji), and increased the likelihood that they will send their lottery-protected first-round pick from 2023 to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Caris LeVert. (Should the Cavaliers fail to make the playoffs this year, the 2025 and 2026 second-round selections would become Cleveland’s.)

Both Garland and Mitchell should continue to get better as their NBA careers go, given how guards often continue to mature. For his part, Mobley is just getting started at the top. Over the next three years, the Cavaliers have a good chance of being serious title contenders.

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