After acquiring Donovan Mitchell, the Cleveland Cavaliers are Eastern Conference contenders once again

The Cavaliers have not made the playoffs without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season. That very well could change this upcoming NBA campaign for Cleveland.

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For the second offseason in a row, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a huge roster move during the doldrums of the NBA offseason. Around this time last year, the Cavaliers acquired big man Lauri Markkanen from the Chicago Bulls in a three-team trade that sent Larry Nance Jr. to the Portland Trail Blazers. As Cleveland's new starting small forward, the Markkanen acquisition shaped the Cavaliers in a fairly dramatic fashion. But, this summer's roster-altering trade saw something even more dramatic shake things up for Cleveland.

According to multiple league sources, the Cavaliers have acquired three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell for Lauri Markkanen, rookie forward Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton, three unprotected first-round selections in 2025, 2027 and 2029 as well as two pick swaps in 2026 and 2028. The Mitchell trade was first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Sexton, meanwhile, signed a four-year, $72 million contract extension as well according to The Athletic's Shams Charania – making this move between Utah and Cleveland a pseudo sign and trade.

The Cavaliers moving on from Markkanen, who some had reported as a "key piece" in their newfound resurgence heading into this season, seemed somewhat surprising. Again, when Markkanen came to Cleveland last summer, he became the starting small forward for the Cavaliers. Sure, it was a bit weird having Markkanen share the floor with two other seven-footers in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. But, Markkanen's mixture of shooting, size and rebounding allowed the triumvirate to work and almost had Cleveland back in the playoffs for the first time in several seasons.

That's all well and good, but, sources have shared with Right Down Euclid multiple times after Markkanen signed his contract with Cleveland that there was a "good chance" he wouldn't see the entirety of it out with the Cavaliers. If anything, the last year with Cleveland was an opportunity for Markkanen to rehabilitate his image after several down seasons with the Bulls. Sources say he was considered one of the most attractive trade pieces in this deal that could make an impact for the Jazz right now. Markkanen can carry the momentum he built last season as the starting power forward for Utah as the Jazz look to right the ship in a world without Rudy Gobert and Mitchell.

Those sources also said that there are similar sentiments from Utah towards Agbaji, who Cleveland selected fourteenth-overall this summer, and Sexton as well. Agbaji, who was considered a safer prospect in this summer's draft, can make an immediate impact with his three-point shooting and perimeter defense and still have a runway to grow and develop from his mistakes as the Jazz rebuild. Sexton, meanwhile, can showcase why he believed he was worth roughly $5 million more than what the Cavaliers were comfortable signing him to this offseason. He enters an ideal situation where he can play more with the ball in his hands and is also supported by some of the existing veteran playmaking and shooting, barring any more unforeseen trades by the Jazz.

Acquiring Donovan Mitchell is a reunion for Cavaliers point guard Ricky Rubio. The backcourt tandem reached the NBA Playoffs in both seasons together in Salt Lake City. Photo credit: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Cavaliers, meanwhile, this might seem like a steep price to pay for a player like Mitchell. But, to be frank, unlike the rest of Mitchell's interested suitors, Cleveland needed a player like him. All throughout last season, the Cavaliers saw their offense truly begin to bog down when Collin Sexton and, eventually, Ricky Rubio were lost to the season to knee injuries. Cleveland had to ask more of Darius Garland, which is normally to be asked of superstars when dealing with injuries. But, when Garland's nagging back injury started to flare up and continued to get worse, the Cavaliers started to spiral a bit and saw them going from a playoff team to a play-in team in a few weeks' time.

Cleveland tried to get a similar spark from Caris LeVert around last year's trade deadline. But, due to LeVert dealing with injuries and having to learn a new offensive ecosystem on the fly, the fit was never truly cohesive between him and Cleveland's roster. Sure, the Cavaliers could have run it back this upcoming season with a healthy, fully acclimated LeVert and a (hopefully) healthy Sexton as well. But, with so much uncertainty around both and a very much improved Eastern Conference, Cleveland decided to go all-in with their acquisition of Mitchell.

In Mitchell, the Cavaliers will get a more than proven go-to bucket-getter who can probe and dismantle defenses in a myriad of ways. Before you get started – yes, the same can be said about how Sexton operated within Cleveland's offense as well. Sure, if you squint hard enough you can say that the respective games of Sexton and Mitchell are fairly similar, and, to an extent, they are! For their careers, they basically have the same true shooting percentage but, how they get those shots are very different. Mitchell is much more three-point heavy, while Sexton's preferred spots are more in the mid-range and at the rim.

Now, based on basic mathematics that means that, in theory, Mitchell will have a much more significant impact on the Cavaliers offensively. Cleveland last season was a below-average team in terms of three-point percentage. Adding Mitchell, who boasts a career average of 36.1% on 7.7 attempts per game, will give the Cavaliers a shot in the arm on the perimeter. Again, Sexton could've provided that in theory based on his shooting percentages but, at the end of the day, it's just not how he's wired as a player.

Sexton just can't bend defenses the way Mitchell can to his will. In fact, Mitchell actually plays a self-actualized, best-case scenario of what Sexton could've been for Cleveland. Sure there's the three-point shooting but there's also the playmaking ability Mitchell can provide that Sexton couldn't. Unlike Sexton or LeVert, Mitchell can truly help relieve the defensive pressure that Garland faces next season. That means Garland will be less burnt out by season's end and that the playoffs, rather than the play-in, should be within reach for the Cavaliers as well.

While the organization will never publicly put the onus of playoffs or bust on this young, impressionable Cavaliers squad, it's now going to be the expectation of those outside the team. Having a guy who has been there multiple times in Mitchell can help with making that possible. Granted, Cleveland was almost there on their own last season. But, with Mitchell now in tow, it feels more like a possibility with the Cavaliers flirting with 50-plus wins in the vaunted Eastern Conference.

Sure, trading for a star like Mitchell accelerates expectations, but it’s the furthest thing from an absolute. But, it ultimately does hinge on Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and how he tactically sets the Cavaliers up for success on a nightly basis. The defensive potential between Garland and Mitchell is going to be an issue at times for Cleveland. Thankfully, the pairing has a safety blanket of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen protecting the interior. But there will be nights they cannot fully cover for the backcourt's defensive woes.

Depending on who starts at small forward, with it likely being a competition between LeVert and Isaac Okoro, will also help decide some of the other perimeter defensive issues as well. It's not going to be perfect on opening night defensively and there will definitely be some kinks to iron out on offense as well. It won't be a finished product 15 to 20 games into the season either. For a while, it's going to be a work in progress in figuring out the overall fit between Mitchell and his new team. It's going to require buy-in from all parties involved but, when the Cavaliers reach the playoffs for the first time without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season, the growing pains they went through will all be worth it.

And once they do reach that point, Cleveland will be able to build upon and hopefully repeat their success as well. Heading into this season, Mitchell is under contract for at least the next three years and that gives the Cavaliers a clear runway as Eastern Conference contenders. This trade was both about now and the future for Cleveland as they've found the ideal star to cap off their young core in Mitchell. The foundation, and culture, the Cavaliers have built will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Featured image credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at Did you enjoy this edition of Right Down Euclid? You can get it in your inbox two to three times a week by subscribing here. All it takes is either your Facebook account or email address!


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