From Deep: How the Cavaliers winning the Donovan Mitchell contest raise the bar in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers could have gone back. Had they decided not to meet the Utah Jazz’s asking price for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell — or had the New York Knicks decided to — they would have fired much of the same team as, 60% way through 2021-22, finished third in the East. Maybe they would have worked something out with restricted free agent Collin Sexton, so they would have a bit more punch.

But they wanted a lot more punch. They wanted a playoff-proven performer who’s seen every type of defense there is. Their offense ranked 20th last season. Mitchell was the driving force behind whoever placed first.

Somehow, everything lined up perfectly in The Land. Mitchell, who turned 26 earlier this month, is the oldest member of Cleveland’s core. He’s excited to join Darius Garland, 22, and Jarrett Allen, 24, who both made the All-Star team last season, and Evan Mobley, 21, who could be the face of the franchise. . If you were to invent a theoretical team that should trade for a theoretical star entering their prime, it would be a young, thriving team with enough draft picks and contracts to seal a deal without losing its most important players.

This is not, however, about a theoretical team trading for a theoretical star at a theoretically perfect time. It’s the Cavs trading for Mitchell now. And there are questions about how the pieces will fit together.

With each year in the playoffs, the effects of modern spacing become more pronounced. Every team wants to be versatile enough to play in multiple ways, with multiple creators and as many switchable shooters and defenders as possible. It’s no longer just the big, slow-footed men who get kicked out in defense; it’s getting harder and harder for smaller playmakers like Mitchell and Garland to hide. At the same time, defenses are becoming increasingly cheeky when it comes to fooling poor or reluctant shooters. Cleveland’s top perimeter defenseman, Isaac Okoro, has had his minutes reduced in the play-in, and Mobley isn’t yet a spot-up threat.

The Cavs built a great defense around their height and length last season. They weren’t afraid of mismatches as they usually had a 7-footer following the ball carrier and often had another 7-footer ready to turn. Their top rosters included Allen, Mobley and Lauri Markkanen, who has since been traded. Ideally it will work the same way with a new rotation, but it will be tricky. If Allen and Mobley can’t quite cover the little guys and the zone doesn’t hold, they could step back defensively. If they prioritize putting their best defenders on the pitch, the ground spacing will suffer and their offense might not improve as they envision.

Maybe Cleveland can make up for the uncertain spacing by breaking offensive glass, forcing turnovers and finding easy buckets in transition. Perhaps Mitchell will be reinvigorated in his new environment and become the kind of defender his 6-foot-10 wingspan suggests he could be. Maybe it will all come together quickly and the Cavs will be in the game for home-court advantage in the playoffs. If they have a rocky start, then what’s next? You don’t do a job like this unless you think it will take you to the next level.

The conversation

Cavs fan: This team is great. It’s starry. It’s just something special, like the city of Cleveland hasn’t seen from a non-LeBron team in what, 30 years? Maybe never? Are we about to debate the relative merits of the 1991-92 Cavs?

Skeptic Cavs: I sure hope not.

Cavs fan: For the record, I’d take Darius Garland on Mark Price, Evan Mobley on Larry Nance, and Jarrett Allen on Brad Daugherty, but you could make decent counter-arguments on any of them. What seals it is that absolutely no one chooses Craig Ehlo over Donovan Mitchell. I still can’t believe Koby Altman made that deal. Genius.

Skeptical Cavs: I’m a little worried about your enthusiasm. The Big Four are extremely talented, but, uh, what about the rest of the roster? Isn’t it strange that while most teams try to get their hands on big, interchangeable wings that play on both sides, Cleveland has none? I can’t help but remember the nets that were swept a few months ago: a bite-sized backcourt, an oversized frontcourt. But this team lacked two starters. (Also, if Price had modern spacing, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.)

Believing in Cavs: At this time last year, you probably thought Mobley and Allen couldn’t co-exist. You probably laughed the first time you saw Lauri Markkanen start next to them too. I like that this team is distinctive. Let’s see the rest of the league try to stop the small backcourt – I bet it’ll be about as much fun as trying to score against the oversized frontcourt.

Skeptic Cavs: Distinctive is definitely a word for these Cavs. Imperfect is another, unless you think they’ll play the same style of basketball as Price, Nance and Daugherty. Mitchell won’t have the pristine spacing he’s used to now that he’s next to Mobley and Allen, and he’s really not going to have that if the Cavs have to play Isaac Okoro to give them perimeter defense. I don’t know how good Ochai Agbaji is going to be, but, considering he was the only 3-and-D guy on the roster, I wish they’d found a way to hold him in. trade gap.

Cavs fan: I’m so sorry the front office had the audacity to drop a late 22-year-old lottery pick in the trade that brought a perennial All-Star back to his prime. Yeah, uh, how irresponsible. Look, while you’re drinking from your half-empty glass, I’ll be thinking about the jump Mobley is about to take and the ways Mitchell and Garland can play against each other. You know how dangerous Garland can be off the ball, right?

Skeptical Cavs: Sure, but I doubt Mobley will make a huge leap forward if Mitchell and Garland have the ball all the time. And you can’t do the Lowry-and-VanVleet thing if none of your guards can defend anyone. Caris LeVert is still there too, in case you were worried Cleveland doesn’t have enough weak defenders who need touches. They are an unbalanced and very heavy team with a giant hole where a two-way wing should be.

Cavs fan: Wait, I felt like every nerd on the internet agreed that you can’t be too valuable when a legit star is available. I’m also confused about the “top-heavy” thing: LeVert could win Sixth Man of the Year because opponents won’t be able to put their best defenders on him, and Love should have won it last season. Ricky Rubio is back and Raul Neto will replace him just fine until he’s healthy. Between Dean Wade, Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler, who you’ve all disrespected, the coaching staff will have plenty of options if Okoro can’t stay on the pitch. You also disrespected Robin Lopez – they could have used him when they were shorthanded.

Skeptical Cavs: I keep thinking about Trae Young cooking the Cavs in the play-in game. They put LeVert on him because Okoro was killing their offense, and Young knew he could put Allen or Markkanen on a switch whenever he wanted. What’s different now? We just saw Mitchell play terrible defense in the playoffs, and it wasn’t the first time. Opponents will be able to expand Cleveland the way they expanded Utah, and stars like Young will have a choice of targets. Best-Case Scenario: The whole zone and scramble work well enough in the regular season that expectations are extremely high heading into the playoffs, causing massive disappointment for the Cavs when the foundation proves shaky. Sound familiar?

Cavs fan: They finished 22-50 a few seasons ago. If they are great in the regular season but disappointing in the playoffs this season, that’s progress! Mitchell was part of a veteran team that had hit a wall; now he is part of a young team with years of track. You underestimate their short-term prospects – they had Markkanen guard star wings last year; it’s really a matter of helping defense anyway – but that’s not even the point. The Cavs have four All-Star caliber players, none of them over the age of 26. Enjoy the ride.

Skeptical Cavs: In order to get four All-Star caliber players, they sent the Jazz almost anything of value. So yes, there will be internal improvement, but they don’t have a lot of flexibility. Teams that go all-in need to nail down their mid-level and minimum-level signings year after year and make the most of the few picks they still have. This hole at point 3 will not fill; just ask the Lob City Clippers or the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies. I don’t predict the Cavs will have to trade Mitchell in 2025, before he can enter free agency, but I also don’t predict they will have built a real competitor by then.

Curiosity: Isaac Okoro

It’s extremely unfair to say that all of this Cleveland experience is built on the idea that Okoro can become a respectable 3-point shooter. But that would make things much easier.

Okoro made 35% of his 3s last season, but that number is misleading. They were pretty much all wide open, and as his 12.3% usage rate indicated, he didn’t make up for his lack of shooting gravity with play. Okoro can make timely cuts and attack a twisted defense, but those skills would appear a thousand times more if the defenders couldn’t sag on him.

The Cavs are getting serious, so if Okoro can’t be a useful offensive player, he’ll likely lose his spot in the starting lineup. If he doesn’t get enough 3s to change his defense, he needs to master the dribbling game and learn to use the space the other teams are giving up. Some players his size or smaller – notably Gary Payton II and Bruce Brown – are dangerous in the small roll, and Okoro can be too, as long as the ground is spaced around him.

Okoro hasn’t even turned 22 yet, and you can see his advantage every time he gets a deflection or runs the ground in transition. This team can’t afford to give him development minutes anymore, but there’s a ton of playing time available for any wing on the roster that can hold their own on both sides.

One more thing

The Cavs outscored opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions last season in the 429 minutes that old pals Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love shared the floor. Chemistry!

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