Instant grades and reaction to Donovan Mitchell’s trade to Cavaliers: Cleveland gets high marks

We were waiting for Kevin Durant to be traded away from the Brooklyn Nets, and then it was decided their partnership would continue this season … at least for now. That left Donovan Mitchell as the last big trade piece expected to find a new home. And for a while, it seemed as if the New York Knicks were the front-runners to make a deal happen with the Utah Jazz. Then in a surprise on Thursday, Mitchell was on the move, but not to The Big Apple.

Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting the Cleveland Cavaliers are the winners of the Mitchell sweepstakes, sending three players, three first-round picks, and two first-round pick swaps to Utah in exchange for the three-time All-Star guard. Collin Sexton is one of the players being sent to Utah from Cleveland, and it’s happening via a sign-and-trade, which resolves his restricted free-agent status from this summer, as well.

This is one of the last major dominoes to fall in the 2022 offseason, and the Jazz made sure it happened before we get to training camp. Aside from a few veterans still left to deal, Utah has hit the full reset on its core. And Cleveland has launched itself toward the top tier of the stacked Eastern Conference than the “let’s win the Play-In Tournament” portion of the standings.

How does this grade out? Let’s bust out the red ink!

Cleveland Cavaliers receive Donovan Mitchell

The Cavaliers were one of the more surprising success stories for much of last season. With a core of Darius Garland, Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, they were playing big most nights, going against the small ball era of versatility. J.B. Bickerstaff was coaching them up, and their defense was fueling them to victories while also not hurting them by playing against modern offensive attacks. Eventually, injuries took them down. Sexton only played in 11 games. Allen played in just 56 games. Ricky Rubio, a key guard in their rotation, didn’t even make it to half the games. Garland and Mobley both missed double-digit games.

Things fell apart for Cleveland by the end of the season, and they went from a surprising top-6 team in the East to a team that couldn’t win a single Play-In Tournament game after all the injuries. Still, the future seemed pretty bright for Cleveland. While I don’t want to diminish what Markkanen was able to do on that team last season, look at what Cleveland is sending out in this trade.

Sexton is a nice young guard. He’s a good scorer, a solid playmaker and he shoots it better than you think (38.5 percent on 815 3-point attempts his first three seasons). Mitchell is better at most things Sexton excels at on the court, outside of 3-point shooting. Sexton is a nice young player, but Mitchell is a star or, at worst, someone knocking on the door of being a star after regressing a bit in the last two seasons.

Markkanen was a nice forward for them, and he was able to compete enough in their big lineups, but they didn’t lose someone they can’t easily replace in sending him out. Ochai Agbaji could find his way into a rotation for a good team pretty soon, but that wasn’t a lock to happen for a 22-year-old rookie on this Cavs team. The draft picks are only as significant as the Cavs’ success allows them to be.

None of the Cavs’ true main core was disrupted here. Mitchell joins Garland as a high-octane backcourt. And yes, there are massive problems there defensively with those two at the top of the shell drill, but Mobley and Allen did a great job making up for that last season. Mobley is going to be even better in Year 2 and moving forward. He has real NBA Defensive Player of the Year DNA in his player profile, and he works so well next to Allen. Throw in any kind of growth from Okoro on offense, and it makes him an easy fit on both ends of the floor. Even if Okoro doesn’t take a step forward, you have even more offense to throw at them with Caris LeVert possibly there as a sixth man. Rubio is even back and if his knee is fully healed, he already proves to pair well with Mitchell when Bickerstaff needs him to.

Maybe you didn’t buy the Cavs as a team ready to arrive last season, and that’s fair. They were still successful when healthy and at least showed that this vision of general manager Koby Altman works. Maybe you think Mitchell is overrated. He’s certainly a shoot-first, shoot-second type of offensive player who had real chemistry issues with Rudy Gobert in Utah, and Mitchell was one of the worst defensive players we’ve seen during the playoff series loss to Dallas. There’s a lot he needs to improve upon to make sure he’s properly catapulted back into star status.

Cleveland acquired Mitchell, a star or potential star, without giving up truly anybody of consequence they can’t easily replace with existing members on the roster. In an Eastern Conference that has a lot of good teams at the top of it and a bunch of teams knocking on the door of getting into that top tier, Cleveland just made sure they’re firmly planted in Tier 2 of the East. It was a question last season. It was a question heading into this season. And maybe it’s still a question for others after this deal. Mitchell gives them a big-time weapon to use, and they’re already used to making up for his kind of deficiencies on the court.

Cleveland made an aggressive move here, but they did it without disrupting who they were and what made them so promising last season. Now they just need to make sure Mitchell isn’t a player who plateaued early in his career and he can keep building with them. We know he can score, but can he lead? Can he distribute? Can he take better shots? Can he just be mediocre on defense instead of aggressively detrimental? All that seems doable, and Cleveland is announcing they’re ready to compete in the East.

Grade: A-

Utah Jazz receive Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three first-round picks, two pick swaps

Once the Jazz traded Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, we knew Mitchell wasn’t going to be long for this team. Maybe it would take until the summer of 2023, but the Jazz were thrusting themselves into the world of tanking or rebuilding or whatever word you want to use when a team guts itself of all their good veterans in exchange for draft picks and young guys. Danny Ainge gave it a season, and after the Jazz imploded in many different ways, he started switching out everything.

Quin Snyder left and Will Hardy took over on the sidelines. Gobert was gone to Minnesota and a historic haul of draft assets came to town in a safe that goes directly to Ainge’s office. Now Mitchell is gone, and the Jazz are continuing to compile assets. If you’re Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic, you’re just wondering if you can get out of Salt Lake City by Thanksgiving, and we know Ainge is going to ask for draft picks in exchange for those two veteran players.

Let’s start with the draft picks. It’s a must for any rebuilding squad. Oklahoma City has a ridiculous stash of them over the next few drafts. New Orleans grabbed a good number of them when they sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee and Anthony Davis to Los Angeles. Utah has decided to go that route, something Ainge emphasized in Boston when it was clear the Celtics weren’t contenders anymore in the years following their 2010 Finals appearance.

Utah is receiving unprotected first-round picks in 2025, 2027, and 2029. The future first-round pick swaps will happen in 2026 and ’28 if it makes sense for the Jazz to execute those swaps. The Jazz are banking on Cleveland falling apart by the 2029 draft, and truly cashing in on this trade by then. It’s not a bad strategy. We’ve seen teams make this work before. We’ve seen Ainge teams make this work before. But it’s also not foolproof as a future draft strategy. Cleveland’s history when LeBron James isn’t involved makes this a good gamble for the Jazz, but at worst they’ll have extra picks in the high teens or 20s to use for themselves or include in future deals.

Interestingly, it’s not the haul of picks we expected to see them get from the Knicks. It was reported and rumored the Jazz were looking for even more picks than what they received for Gobert, but that didn’t happen here. They received fewer picks, but they still have a very impressive collection of future picks considering they just started this process two months ago.

Grabbing Sexton in this deal is nice for them, especially on a contract for four years and $72 million. Before his knee injury last season, Sexton was probably going to grab something very similar to John Collins with Atlanta at $25 million per season. Maybe the market would’ve been tougher and he gets just $20 million per season. Instead, locking him in at $18 million per season is a really good value, as long as that knee doesn’t give him future problems.

Sexton is a good scorer, just like Mitchell. Two seasons ago, he dropped an efficient 24.3 points per game. He could be a better playmaker for others, but he’s not awful at it either. He’s a reliable shooter, so don’t get worried about the poor shooting in 11 games he had last season. Sexton can get to the line at a decent clip too, and he’ll be given more chances in Utah. The Jazz ended up with a pretty decent Mitchell clone of sorts, while also getting him with less money than what they were giving Mitchell. That’s really good value.

If the Jazz decide to make Markkanen part of their core moving forward, we know he can shoot and he can score. He can be a decent rebounder too. Markkanen is under contract for the next two seasons at roughly $33.6 million total, and then he has a partially guaranteed season in 2024-25. He’ll either make the full $18 million that season or he’ll be cut and on the books for just $6 million. That’s a very cap-friendly deal and easy to move if needed. Ochao Agbaji is a nice wing for them, and he becomes similar to the acquisition that Walker Kessler was in the Minnesota trade. He sort of counts as another first-round pick acquired, but he was just drafted.

We need to see how the draft picks shake out for Utah. We need to see how healthy Sexton is. But this has the structure of a good trade for Utah long-term, and we know they’re not done dealing yet.

Grade: B

Related Reading

Russo: Cavs made a statement. They’re going for it all
Lloyd: Cavs bolster young team and get what they needed
Hollinger: Cavaliers, Jazz and Knicks played their cards right
Insiders: Does Mitchell make the Cavaliers contenders?

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(Top photo: Chris Gardner / Getty Images)


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