On Donovan Mitchell and the cost of upgrading the Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers, reportedly, have interest in Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. They have also pulled themselves out of the race for Mitchell.

Both facts make sense. Every team in the league (sans the Jazz, who apparently are trading him) have probably called or at least held a meeting about acquiring Mitchell. He’s a 25-year-old All-Star under contract for two more years with a player option for a third. He’s been an All-Star for three years and averaged 20-plus points every year of his five-year career.

Mitchell’s been the engine of a Jazz offense that has finished third in offensive rating in 2020-21 and first last season, per Cleaning The Glass. The system they ran under Quinn Snyder helped, sure, but he made it go. He is bonafide.

There are concerns with Mitchell. He’s a poor defender — not physical, not engaged on or off ball and able to be attacked by guards and apex predator wings. He has a 6’10” wingspan that, in theory, should allow him to play passing lanes. He racks up some deflections and some steals, but is not impactful overall on defense. The Jazz have worked around that by having Rudy Gobert, so it makes sense to think the Cavs would think they could do the same with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Pairing Mitchell with Darius Garland — and leaning into the malleability of both — with two aliens in the frontcourt certainly has appeal.

But there are downsides for Cleveland to consider. The cost to get him will be high. For one, the NBA is a salary cap league. Within reason, there is only so much money teams can spend. The Cavs, if they were to trade for Mitchell would have Mitchell for two years (assuming he declines his player option) at $30 million plus, Darius Garland on a five-year, $193 million deal that kicks in next year and four years and $80 million left on Jarrett Allen’s deal. For the 2023-24 season, those three would make a combined $85.9 million under a projected cap of $133 million and luxury tax line of $158.1 million, per Spotrac. Add in Evan Mobley at $8.8 million and that’s four players for $94.7 million. That rest of that money will go fast.

Mobley’s future contracts matters here too, even if there’s a likely cap jump and new CBA on the horizon. After he makes $8.8 million in his third year, his salary jumps to $11.1 million in year four. That sets him up for an extension that would kick in for the 2025-26 season — the same season Mitchell holds a player option for.

Mobley, if he continues on the path he’s on, is going to command a max rookie extension. Mitchell is going to want a raise. There are CBA rules to consider with how many rookie max players a team can have on its roster at a given time. If the Cavs were to deal for Mitchell, there are future obstacles that need to be addressed if they want to keep a Garland, Mobley, Mitchell and Allen core together. And they probably would, because that’s a group that could accomplish something real.

There’s also asset management to consider. In a world where Dejounte Murray netted the San Antonio Spurs three first-rounders and Rudy Gobert commanded four from the Minnesota Timberwolves, how many will Mitchell commanded? Five? Six? And that’s before getting into any young talent they’d want.

Utah, rightfully, will ask for the world. Giving up the world comes with lots of risk. It’s an all-in move, committing a team to a certain path. You trade for Mitchell at what it’s going to cost, there’s no going back. Is that what Cleveland should be doing coming off of one play-in season as Garland and Mobley are really just getting started?

There’s also the young player part of this. The Jazz would probably first ask for one of Garland or Mobley. Both are off limits, so then the conversation turns to Allen, a 23-year-old All-Star locked into a reasonable contract. Cleveland, if it has real ambitions to escalate the timeline, probably would be resistant to include Allen.

Let’s say the Jazz are good with that. The package then has to become picks and matching player salary. The name that comes to mind first there is Collin Sexton, still stuck in free agency purgatory. He’s, without question, the best young player Cleveland can offer to a rebuilding Utah team with Garland, Mobley and Allen off the table. Issac Okoro or Ochai Agbaji, for example, don’t move the needle in the same way.

Going from Sexton to Mitchell would be an upgrade. (Mitchland or Garchell doesn’t roll off the tongue like Sexland, but the Cleveland t-shirt economy will persist.) Mitchell is a tad bigger and more proven. He’s also a better creator with a career assist percentage nearly six points higher than Sexton’s. (It’s also worth noting that swapping Sexton for Mitchell doesn’t solve the defensive concerns Sexland has basked in. In a perfect world, which the NBA is not, the Cavs would likely aim for a bigger guard or a wing to play off of Garland .) Sexton (going to Utah with a deal at $17 million a year), Caris LeVert and a boat load of picks for Mitchell works under league trade rules.

Mitchell is also different than Sexton. For their careers, they basically have the same true shooting percentage (Mitchell is at 55.5%, Sexton is at 55%). But how they get there is vastly different — Mitchell is three-point heavy, while Sexton is more mid-range and rim heavy. For the purposes of this exercise, the numbers here are from the 2021-22 season for Mitchell and the 2020-21 season for Sexton when he was healthy. Last year prior to his season-ending injury, Sexton’s shot location split was 41% at the rim, 33% in mid-range and 26% from three. That, to be fair to him, is trending the right way.

The difference matters. The way the league currently works, three-pointers are king — particularly from perimeter players. Mitchell can stretch defenses out from three in a way Sexton doesn’t and gives defenses something to think about off ball to a degree Sexton does not. Lose him off ball and you’re giving a good shooter a clean look.. Advanced metrics prefer Mitchell over Sexton too. And it’s not particularly close.

Sexton, in theory, could change his approach. He’s become a good shooter — the player who dribbled in from a wide open corner three his rookie season is long gone — but is reluctant to really let them fly. He’s also an underrated cutter, capable of exploding into the lane when the defense leaves an opening. He does more of that and the value gap could close.

There’s also a financial gap to consider. The Cavs, per cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor, have most recently offered Sexton a three-year, $40 million deal. That’s Jordan Clarkson money, not Mitchell money. Even the four-year, $72 million deal Cleveland reportedly offered Sexton last year doesn’t sniff what Mitchell is making and will make going forward.

Trade for Mitchell and you’re all-in on this group right now and are escalating spending right away. Dan Gilbert and his family can afford it if they want it. It’s about if it’s worth getting into the luxury tax right now and kicking off the escalating costs of getting into the luxury tax. Regardless of NBA owners being able to afford it — and they can, they are billionaires — teams usually don’t go into the tax until it’s time for real title contention.

Would going for Mitchell take the Cavs to that place immediately and give them a title window in the next 2-4 years with the Garland max kicking in, Mobley’s likely max rookie extension and needing to round out the rest of the roster? Mitchell not only raises the overall cost, but also complicates when Mobley could sign his deal based on NBA rules for rookie extensions. Is doing this kind of all-in move now worth it?

For a Cavs team playing two bigs who can’t shoot — it’s unclear if Mobley can make three-pointers yet — having two offensive engines in Garland and Mitchell who space on and off ball could be really appealing. That’s at the root of why they’d explore this, cost and risks aside.

It’s also telling, perhaps, that they removed themselves from the discussion when it was clear they weren’t going to beat the Knicks offer. It seems the Cavs decided that going all-in for a player at Mitchell’s level right now isn’t worth the cost. For a different player, perhaps a cleaner upgrade, the answer might be different.

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