Ambition and desperation met at an intersection when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz consummated a blockbuster trade headlined by Donovan Mitchell going East — not to New York — and cementing Danny Ainge taking a sledgehammer to the Jazz roster for what’s sure to be an ugly-ish rebuild.
Cleveland was ambitious enough to go after Mitchell, and Utah desperate enough to get off the Western hamster wheel that inevitably ends in San Francisco.
In sending restricted free agent Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen and Ochai Agbaji to Utah for a dynamic All-Star in Mitchell, the Cavaliers announced their candidacy for long-term stability in the East. The cost of doing business has risen in recent years, and slow-walking won’t always get it done.
Mitchell’s days in Utah were numbered, particularly when Ainge gave 34-year-old coach Will Hardy a five-year contract in late June and shipped out All-Star center Rudy Gobert to Minnesota not too long after.
Ainge wasn’t going to tiptoe around a rebuild, taking not just the whole page but scanning Sam Presti’s entire playbook in attempting to gather as many future first-round picks and pick swaps to go hunting sooner rather than later.
Mitchell garnering three unprotected firsts and two more pick swaps is a haul.
At times, he’s been a spectacular playoff performer, but the pressure will ratchet up in Cleveland and he’ll be expected to lead the young core headlined by Darius Garland and second-year big man Evan Mobley.
Mitchell has the playoff experience relative to anyone associated with the Cavs’ future and a fresh start will perhaps unlock him even more.
There are a lot of players who can create their own shot and a lot of relative youth in that Cavaliers locker room. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff will have to preach sacrifice and exercise patience, because the temptation for everyone on a team that came within a sniff of the playoffs is to do more — even before adding a ball-dominant piece in Mitchell.
Garland is locked up, and so is Mitchell, for the foreseeable future. Life is a lot easier when your backcourt doesn’t feel like contracts are on the line with every shot taken — one less complication when this acquisition presents a few solvable ones.
For those who complain small-market teams can’t compete, this is the formula — in theory: Use your draft picks well (Mobley, Garland, Sexton). Be opportunistic in the trade market (Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert) and when a star comes available, be bold with draft picks that perhaps have become a little too coveted by the masses and take your cuts.
Are first-round draft picks still valuable? Absolutely. But when one considers the salaries of draft picks are tied to a soon-to-explode salary cap due to an upcoming TV rights deal, a team could look at the future as an abstract unknown with a big number attached to it.
Sources: Potential Knicks deal included RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes and pick package
A note about the New York Knicks here: It’s easy to bag on them, for obvious reasons. But acquiring Mitchell wouldn’t have drastically changed their fortunes, and they probably breathed a sigh of relief in him going to Cleveland rather than, say, Miami when considering he’ll have the option to be a free agent following the 2024-25 season. And although there are questions about Mitchell’s fit in Cleveland, the Cavs’ roster was better constructed to absorb Mitchell and accentuate what he could do, as opposed to the Knicks’ roster highlighting what he hasn’t yet shown.
Cleveland has a smallish backcourt, just like the Knicks would’ve if they paired Mitchell with Jalen Brunson. But Cleveland’s front line (Allen, Mobley) is much more defensively inclined to cover for those mistakes than its New York counterparts — like the unrelenting pressure that surrounded Carmelo Anthony’s tenure a decade ago.
If the Knicks operated out of discipline and organizational structure, good for them in not being taken for every asset they had. If they operated out of organizational arrogance, believing Mitchell would come their way regardless, it’s a question Knicks president Leon Rose will have to answer in front of the media when he chooses to conduct his first news conference in over two years.
Sources told Yahoo Sports a deal was close with the Knicks before New York balked at the last second, pivoting to give RJ Barrett a four-year extension. It would’ve included Barrett, Quentin Grimes, expiring contracts, two first-round picks, a top-four protected pick owed to the Knicks from Milwaukee in 2025, two pick swaps and two second-round picks.
The Knicks felt the price was too steep, sources said, and walked away.
And better for Cleveland to come in, to take advantage and to take a chance on its own player development in order to compete with the Bostons and Milwaukees of the world. The Cavs have spent money in keeping their own players and felt comfortable enough to challenge the next tier in the East — not everyone can make it to the second round of the playoffs and more than a few teams will disappoint.
Good for everyone invested in compelling regular season basketball.
There are three All-Stars, plus a fourth player who very well could be better than all of them in Mobley. It presses the fast-forward button on the Cavaliers’ track, an aggressive move that indicates steady, yearly growth just won’t cut it.
Now, Mobley could’ve used another year of development without playoff-style pressure, but it seems doubtful he’ll shy away from increased expectations. For Cleveland’s present and future, it would be best if all involved realized he’s the key to all of this bearing real fruit.
Mitchell didn’t always make nice with Gobert, so it’s easy to deduce he’ll give Mobley the space to cook; we won’t be counting non-passes to this big man, one would think. And Mobley is far more comfortable with the ball on the block, in the high post, heck, anywhere relative to Gobert.
A prominent coach in the East believes this will unlock Mobley, though.
“You’re not throwing the ball down to him much anyways,” he told Yahoo Sports. “But a two-man game with either guard in the middle or side [pick-and-roll] will be tough.”
Now, Mitchell escapes Salt Lake City and avoids the unforgiving pressure of New York City. What awaits is a young and hungry group of Cavaliers ready to take the next step in a crowded field.