Monday, June 17, 2024

From Deep: How the Cavaliers winning the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes, will lead to winning games

The Cleveland Cavaliers could have run it 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 do so — they would have returned largely the same team that, 60 percent of the way through 2021-22, was third in the East. Maybe they would have worked something out with restricted free agent Collin Sexton, so they’d have some more scoring punch.

But they wanted a lot more scoring punch. They wanted a proven playoff performer who has seen every type of defense there is. Their offense ranked 20th last season. Mitchell was the engine of the one that ranked first.

In a way, everything lined up perfectly in The Land. Mitchell, who turned 26 earlier this month, is the oldest member of Cleveland’s core. He’s thrilled to join 22-year-old Darius Garland and 24-year-old Jarrett Allen, 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 his prime, it would be a young team on the upswing, with enough draft picks and contracts to get a deal done without losing its most important players. 

This is not, however, 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 are going to fit. 

Every year in the playoffs, the effects of modern spacing become more pronounced. Every team wants to be versatile enough to play multiple ways, with multiple creators and as many shooters and switchable defenders as possible. It’s not just slow-footed big men getting hunted on defense anymore; it’s increasingly difficult for small playmakers like Mitchell and Garland to hide. At the same time, defenses are getting ever more brazen when it comes to cheating off poor or reluctant shooters. Cleveland’s best perimeter defender, Isaac Okoro, had his minutes reduced in the play-in, and Mobley isn’t a spot-up threat yet.

The Cavs built an excellent defense around their size and length last season. They weren’t afraid of mismatches because they usually had a 7-footer tracking the ballhandler and often had another 7-footer ready to rotate. Their best lineups featured Allen, Mobley and the since-traded Lauri Markkanen. Ideally, this will work the same way with a new rotation, but it’ll be tricky. If Allen and Mobley can’t quite cover for the little guys and the zone doesn’t hold up, they could take a step back defensively. If they prioritize putting their best defenders on the court, then the floor spacing will suffer and their offense might not improve the way they’re envisioning. 

Maybe Cleveland can make up for iffy spacing by crashing the offensive glass, forcing turnovers and finding easy buckets in transition. Maybe Mitchell will be invigorated in his new environment and become the kind of defender his 6-foot-10 wingspan suggests he could be. Maybe everything will coalesce quickly and the Cavs will be in the mix for home-court advantage in the playoffs. If they have a rough start, though, then what’s the next move? You don’t make a trade like that unless you think it’ll take you to the next level. 

The conversation

Cavs believer: This team is stupendous. It’s star-studded. It’s simply something special, the likes of which the city of Cleveland has not seen from a non-LeBron team in, what, 30 years? Maybe ever? Are we about to debate the relative merits of the 1991-92 Cavs? 

Cavs skeptic: I sure hope not. 

Cavs believer: For the record, I’d take Darius Garland over Mark Price, Evan Mobley over Larry Nance and Jarrett Allen over Brad Daugherty, but you could make decent counterarguments on each of those. What seals it is that absolutely no one is picking Craig Ehlo over Donovan Mitchell. I still can’t believe Koby Altman got that deal done. Genius. 

Cavs skeptic: I’m a little worried about how excited you are. The Big Four are extremely talented, but, uh, what about the rest of the roster? Isn’t it weird that, while most teams are trying to get their hands on big, switchable wings who play both ends, Cleveland has none of them? I can’t help but be reminded of the Nets that got swept a few months ago: bite-sized backcourt, super-sized frontcourt. But that team was missing two starters. (Also, if Price had modern-day spacing, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.)

Cavs believer: This time last year, you probably thought Mobley and Allen could’t coexist. You probably laughed the first time you saw Lauri Markkanen starting next to them, too. I love that this team is distinctive. Let’s see the rest of the league try to stop the bite-sized backcourt — I bet it’ll be about as fun as trying to score against the super-sized frontcourt.

Cavs skeptic: Distinctive is definitely one word for these Cavs. Flawed is another, unless you think they’ll get to play the same style of basketball that Price, Nance and Daugherty did. Mitchell is not going to 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 some perimeter defense. I’m not sure how good Ochai Agbaji is going to be, but, given that he was the only 3-and-D guy on the roster, I wish they had found a way to keep him out of the trade.

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

Cavs skeptic: Sure, but I doubt Mobley’s going to make some kind of huge leap on offense if Mitchell and Garland have the ball all the time. And you can’t do the Lowry-and-VanVleet thing if neither of your guards can defend anybody. Caris LeVert is still around, too, in case you were concerned that Cleveland doesn’t have enough weak defenders who need touches. This is an unbalanced, top-heavy team with a giant hole where a two-way wing should be. 

Cavs believer: Hold on, I was under the impression that all nerds on the internet agreed that you can’t be too precious about fit when a legitimate star is available. I’m confused about the “top-heavy” thing, too: LeVert might 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 fill in just fine until he’s healthy. Between Dean Wade, Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler, all of whom you’ve disrespected wildly, the coaching staff will have plenty of options if Okoro can’t stay on the floor. You’ve disrespected Robin Lopez, too — they could’ve used him when they were shorthanded.

Cavs skeptic: I just 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 get Allen or Markkanen on a switch whenever he wanted. What’s different now? We just saw Mitchell play horrendous defense in the playoffs, and it wasn’t the first time. Opponents will be able to spread Cleveland out the way they spread Utah out, and stars like Young will have their choice of targets. Best-case scenario: All the zone and the scrambling works well enough in the regular season for expectations to be extremely high heading into the playoffs, setting the Cavs up for massive disappointment when the foundation is revealed to be shaky. Sound familiar? 

Cavs believer: They finished 22-50 a couple of seasons ago. If they’re awesome in the regular season but disappointing in the playoffs this season, that’s progress! Mitchell was on a veteran-heavy team that had hit a wall; now he’s on a young team with years of runway. You’re underestimating their short-term prospects — they had Markkanen guard star wings last year; it’s really all about the help defense anyway — but that’s not even the point. The Cavs have four All-Star-caliber players, none of them older than 26. Enjoy the ride. 

Cavs skeptic: In order to have four All-Star-caliber players, they sent the Jazz virtually everything else of value. So yes, there will be internal improvement, but they don’t have much flexibility. Teams that go all-in have to nail their midlevel and minimum signings year after year and make the most of the few picks they still have. That hole at the 3 spot won’t fill itself; just ask the Lob City Clippers or Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies. I’m not predicting that the Cavs will have to trade Mitchell in 2025, before he can hit free agency, but I’m not predicting they’ll have built a proper contender by then, either. 

The curiosity: Isaac Okoro

It is wildly unfair to say that this entire Cleveland experiment rests on the idea that Okoro can become a respectable 3-point shooter. But it would make things a lot simpler.

Okoro made 35 percent of his 3s last season, but that number is misleading. They were virtually all wide open, and, as his 12.3 percent usage rate indicates, he didn’t make up for his lack of shooting gravity with playmaking. Okoro can make timely cuts and attack a bent defense, but these skills would pop a thousand times more if defenders could not sag off of him.

The Cavs are getting serious, so, if Okoro can’t be a helpful offensive player, he will likely lose his spot in the starting lineup. If he doesn’t make enough 3s to change how he’s defended, then he needs to master the dribble-handoff game and learn how to use the space other teams are surrendering. Some players his size or smaller — most notably Gary Payton II and Bruce Brown — are dangerous in the short roll, and Okoro can be, too, as long as the floor is spaced around him.

Okoro hasn’t even turned 22 yet, and you can see his upside every time he gets a deflection or runs the floor in transition. This team can no longer afford to hand him developmental minutes, but there’s a ton of playing time available for any wing on the roster who can hold his own on both ends. 

One more thing

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

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