Are the Cavs title contenders after trading for Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)
Donovan Mitchell (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Cleveland Cavaliers surprised everyone, swinging for the fences and landing Donovan Mitchell. Is it enough to open their championship window?

The Cavaliers’ trade for Donovan Mitchell was a huge swing, the kind of move that a rebuilding team carefully lays the groundwork over multiple seasons and often never get the chance to complete. They spent years carefully building and developing a young core and rather than push forward on the same path, seeing how far internal development and their future NBA Draft luck could take them, they’ve pushed their chips to the center of the table.

The Cavs will have some cap space next season when Kevin Love and Caris LeVert come off the books, but for all intents and purposes, this is the core for the next half-decade. They have just three first-round picks in the next seven drafts and for two of those, the Jazz will have the option of swapping picks. They have Darius Garland signed through this season and four more. They have Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley under team control at least through the 2025-26 season, and Mitchell as well if he exercises his player option.

This is the core, staring, optimistically, at a four-year window of championship contention. But is it enough?

Does Donovan Mitchell make the Cavs a championship contender?

To try and answer this question, I’m going to just focus on the Cavs. Whether they are likely to be better than teams like the Bucks, Celtics or Raptors over the next few years is less material than the question of whether they could compete at that level.

On paper, the easy answer is yes. The Cavs missed the playoffs last season but had a top-5 defense and can reasonably expect significant improvement from Evan Mobley and at least some improvement from Darius Garland (with lower expectations for growth only because he’s already an All-Star caliber guard). The only rotation piece from last season who went out in the trade is Lauri Markkanen and whatever they’re losing in frontcourt depth is more than made up for by what they’re gaining with Mitchell as a backcourt scorer and creator.

Garland was really the Cavs’ only reliable offensive engine last year and even if the fit between him and Mitchell doesn’t seem ideal — two undersized guards, both of whom are most effective with the ball in their hands — Cleveland is far better off than they were last year. The defensive tandem of Mobley and Allen in the middle will help cover for defensive shortcomings in the backcourt and things will be much easier for the frontcourt offensively with multiple creators on the perimeter the defense has to account for.

If Isaac Okoro can continue developing as a spot-up shooter and LeVert can have a bounce-back year with slightly less offensive primacy, the Cavs should be able to roll out a top-10 defense with a versatile offense that features multiple creators and shooters who can keep the ball moving and exploit space wherever it opens.

Sounds a little familiar doesn’t it?

Aren’t these Cavs just building a lesser version of the Utah Jazz?

In some ways, what the Cavs have is reminiscent of the roster the Utah Jazz just finished disassembling. It’s not a one-to-one comparison but there are enough similar elements to make it an issue worth considering — a great defense built around elite rim protection compensating for shakier perimeter play, a versatile offense with multiple creators but a lot relying on Mitchell’s ability to score efficiently with extreme volume.

However, I think there are a few things here that break in Cleveland’s favor, most importantly Evan Mobley and Darius Garland.

Mobley is still just scratching the surface of what he can do offensively but he’s already a much more versatile player than Rudy Gobert at that end of the floor. He’s not a spot-up threat yet but he’s going to be soon. He already looks more comfortable punishing mismatches, whether it’s by posting up smaller defenders or attacking plodding bigs off the dribble. Even if you include putbacks, Mobley still made 39 more unassisted 2-pointers than Gobert last season.

Offensively, Garland is also far superior to any backcourt partner Mitchell had in Utah (all due respect to Jordan Clarkson and 33-year-old Mike Conley). Remember that Garland, who is just 22, made 40.5 percent of his pull-up 3s last season, finished sixth in the league in potential assists per game and shot better than 50 percent from the field on 17.5 drives per game. He is already a strong three-level scorer who should be able to make things easier for Mitchell when they’re on the court together and give the Cavs offense a dimension the Jazz didn’t have when Mitchell was on the bench.

And, of course, the Jazz comparison isn’t exactly unflattering, even if they decided to rebuild. Utah posted a winning percentage of .622 over the past six seasons. They repeatedly faltered in the playoffs but were legitimate championship contenders for much of that span.

The Cavs might not win a championship in the next four seasons but that won’t mean this trade isn’t a success. It should absolutely raise their floor to the level of contention. And even if they have to settle for being unfulfilled contenders, four seasons of 0.600 basketball with a few deep playoff runs is far more than they’ve managed in nearly any other non-LeBron period.

They might not win it all. But the Cavs are a lot closer to a championship than they were a few days ago.

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