Last Thursday, the NBA landscape was shifted once again when three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell was sent from the Utah Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster trade that included three unprotected first-round picks.
This move immediately makes the Cleveland Cavaliers legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. On paper, this team looks dangerous, but how well does Donovan Mitchell actually fit with this team? What is the ceiling of this team? Where do they go from here?
First, it is important to look at who Cleveland is getting. Donovan Mitchell is one of the best shot creators in the league and has been one of the best playoff scorers of the past three years. Last year’s Cleveland team was clearly lacking another on-ball creator to help out star guard Darius Garland. According to PBP Stats, last season the Cavaliers played at a 50-win pace with Garland on the court but an abysmal 20-win pace when he went to the bench. The offense went from top three to the worst in the league when Garland went to the bench.
What does this mean for Mitchell? Adding an elite shot creator to a team that struggled to generate offense without Garland means that Cleveland’s offense will remain productive when one of them goes to the bench. Mitchell is a great three-point shooter and is amazing at scoring off the dribble, considered to be in the upper echelon of all three-point talent metrics across the league.
In Utah, Mitchell ran a lot of high pick-and-roll, which means defenders had to play much more aggressively to respect his dangerous outside shooting game. Being the lightning-quick guard that he is, Mitchell was able to exploit these coverages in a way he hadn’t previously done before. The number of attempted shots at the rim has remained constant throughout his career thus far, but his rim finishing took a massive leap this year.
These skill sets make Mitchell one of the best on-ball creators in the league currently. However, this poses another question of how well he fits off the ball. His now backcourt teammate Darius Garland is also a premier on-ball creator that thrives in the high pick-and-roll much like Mitchell. He doesn’t quite have Mitchell’s explosiveness, so he is not quite as effective of a finisher.
Last season, Garland was marvelous at connecting with his teammates for high-percentage looks, because he is such a quick decision maker with the ball. Given that passing is probably his greatest skill set, he appears to complement Mitchell very well. Both are respectable catch-and-shoot players, and Garland has a phenomenal cutting game, so the potential to be the most potent offensive backcourt in the NBA is certainly a possibility.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about this Cavaliers team and not mention the two seven-footers inside that are Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Allen and Mobley make up one of the best defensive frontcourts in the entire league, and that matters here when the question is how Mitchell fits with this current Cavaliers roster.
Neither Garland nor Mitchell are good defenders at all. For years in Utah, the defensive strategy was overly reliant on now Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert to clean up the mess of his teammates’ defensive lapses. This strategy worked in the regular season but was massively exposed in the playoffs repeatedly.
Cleveland will almost certainly employ a similar defensive strategy that Utah did, therefore it will be up to Allen and Mobley to keep this team elite defensively. The questions of whether this team will regress defensively in the postseason are certainly valid, but given that the season hasn’t started yet, it’s too early to make any bold claims. After all, Cleveland does have better defensive wings than Utah ever did, which means that they will provide some resistance before opponents get to the rim. However, shooting and spacing remain an issue looking at the depth chart.
This takes us to the final piece of the puzzle: Caris LeVert. After the Mitchell trade last week, LeVert’s fit and future on the team were immediately questioned, not because he isn’t good but because his role on the Cavaliers has now been filled by someone better. Other roster issues that required immediate attention have now been magnified.
The Cavaliers need another three-and-D wing alongside Isaac Okoro that is more of a threat from the perimeter. According to BBall Index, Isaac Okoro was second in the entire league in three-point shot quality last season (minimum 1500 minutes). This means that he was mostly left wide open on his three-point attempts, hampering the spacing Garland and Mitchell will need to work with.
If the Cavaliers do decide to shop Caris LeVert, it will be difficult to make the contracts match without taking on an undesirable contract in the process. However Devin Vassell (San Antonio Spurs) and Caleb Martin (Miami Heat) are two names that certainly fit the need. Both players are solid defenders and great three-point shooters.
Miami could use another shot creator to pair with Jimmy Butler, a need LeVert can fill. San Antonio is looking to lose as many games as possible next season to be in the position to draft French-phenom Victor Wembanyama next year. LeVert would be the clear number-one option in San Antonio, which could raise his value heading into his unrestricted free agency in 2023.
It will certainly not be easy to pull off another trade. Cleveland may decide it is not entirely necessary. Regardless, one thing is certain. With the arrival of Donovan Mitchell to Forest City, Cleveland has now positioned themselves to be a serious championship contender both immediately and in the future.