Today marks a year since Koby Altman and the Cleveland Cavaliers surprised the basketball world by trading for Donovan Mitchell. A year later, the Cavaliers are getting set to open camp and build on the success of the last regular season.
Everyone quickly assigns winners and losers after a blockbuster deal is completed. But, clear winners and losers don’t emerge until several years. That will be the case here as the last first-round pick sent to Utah won’t convey until 2029. One thing is clear. Altman would still do this deal a year later.
In basketball, four quarters never equals a dollar. The value of one superstar player will always outweigh the value of a collection of talent. That is why the team that receives the best player in the deal often wins the trade. Things go sideways when who was supposed to be the best player isn’t able to be that same guy for his new team.
Mitchell hasn’t just lived up to the player he was previously in Utah. He’s shown he can be a far better one. He finished last season with 28.3 points per game with an outstanding effective field goal percentage of 57.2. Both of which were career highs.
Mitchell was one of the best perimeter scorers last regular season. Much of that can be attributed to his improvements as an outside shooter. He was able to extend his game by nailing 39.2% of his 5.2 pull-up threes per game. That was the third-highest percentage among players who took three or more per game. This allowed him to become a lethal three-level scorer as he converted 47.7% of his midrange shots — 78th percentile — and 68.2% of his attempts at the rim — 82nd percentile.
The regular season success didn’t transfer to the playoffs for various reasons. Roster construction aside, Mitchell’s limitations off-ball and as a distributor were magnified in the disappointing series against the New York Knicks. His inability to play up to the level we grew accustomed to in the regular season played a part in why the series was as lopsided as it was. Whether or not Mitchell can improve in those areas will go a long way in determining if Cleveland can advance as far as their skill level suggests they should next postseason.
Any framing of whether this deal was a mistake should be viewed in the context of what the Cavaliers could’ve done differently to raise the ceiling of a Darius Garland and Evan Mobley core. Despite Lauri Markkanen’s breakout season, the pieces previously on the roster don’t do that. Future picks become less valuable when opposing general managers believe a nucleus has a long runway ahead. With the upcoming salary implications of Garland’s max extension kicking in for the 2023-24 season, last season was the time to act with little concern about future roster flexibility. Mitchell theoretically remains the best bet to take this team to another level.
Many good bets don’t pay off. The whole analysis of this trade rests on how the playoffs go. If Cleveland has another disappointing outing, it could mean Mitchell’s stint in the wine and gold is short-lived. Altman and company will likely have difficulty convincing Mitchell to sign an extension the following offseason. They would likely explore moving him before his player option in the summer of 2025. Losing Mitchell in any form would be a massive step back even if the Cavs could flip him for a decent return. However, the opposite is likely true if the Cavaliers have a deep postseason run.
Altman would still do the deal a year later, but we won’t know if the Cavaliers won until next spring. The pre-trade group had all the makings of a fun regular-season team that would predictably fall short in the playoffs due to a lack of high-end shot-making. Mitchell has the skillset to solve those problems, but he didn’t in the one chance he had to do so. Now it depends on whether he can in his next go-around.
The next postseason could make or break this era of Cavaliers’ basketball.
Covering sports has been a dream of Jackson’s ever since he became old enough to realize playing professionally wasn’t an option. He’s been writing about the Cavaliers for various sites, like King James Gospel and Fear the Sword, and has covered the Cleveland Charge since the 2021-22 season. Jackson also co-hosts The Junkyard Pod with Right Down Euclid’s Tony Pesta.
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