It wasn’t long ago when it seemed difficult to find the way out. There was a bottleneck of shooting guards on the Cleveland Cavaliers roster, many with skill sets that replicated the other, free-agent negotiations with Collin Sexton had turned contentious and Lauri Markkanen still seemed miscast as a 7-foot small forward.
The Cavs had three terrific young pieces in Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, but finding the path to declutter and improve the surrounding parts proved difficult. Internally, a few members of the organization were concerned the roster wasn’t good enough to meet growing expectations following a Play-In Tournament appearance last season.
Finding the solution to all of it was getting complicated.
Cavs president of basketball operations Koby Altman and Jazz general manager Justin Zanik have worked together on several deals in the past and remain close. Zanik was a member of Utah’s front office when the Cavs acquired Rodney Hood and later sent Kyle Korver to the Jazz in separate deals. Zanik was Utah’s GM when the Cavs sent Jordan Clarkson there a year later. There is trust between the organizations and a history of getting deals done.
So when Altman re-engaged Zanik this week, he gave the Jazz permission to build whatever deal was necessary to land All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland. By that point, Altman had made it clear that Garland, Mobley and Allen were not available. Anything else was doable.
While the New York Knicks staggered and swayed in their talks with the Jazz, the Cavs moved quickly.
By Thursday afternoon, about 48 hours after re-engaging Utah, the deal was complete: unprotected picks in 2025, ’27 and ’29, plus Sexton, Markkanen and rookie Ochai Agbaji along with swap rights on the Cavs’ draft picks in 2026 and ’28.
It’s a war chest of draft capital, but worth it to a Cavs franchise that should finally reach its long-held goal of making the NBA playoffs without LeBron James — a famine that has spanned 25 years. The Eastern Conference is overstuffed with title contenders, but the Cavs are now at least in the conversation.
Mitchell, who turns 26 next week, is a three-time All-Star who averaged 25.9 points last season and has led the Jazz to the playoffs in each of his five years. He is under team control for three more seasons and holds a $37 million player option for 2025-26.
Mitchell will pair with 22-year-old Darius Garland to give the Cavs one of the league’s best young backcourt duos. Both are undersized guards, but the Cavs believe Mitchell’s wing span allows him to play longer than his 6-foot-1 frame, while the presence of Mobley and Allen in the frontcourt provides the type of defensive protection necessary when going small on the perimeter.
It’s also a happy ending for Sexton, who receives a four-year, $72 million extension from the Jazz as part of the deal. Thus ends a strange four-year odyssey in Cleveland for Sexton, who was pumped up as the face of the franchise when he arrived but left without a contract offer this summer.
The Cavs had offered a three-year, $45 million extension at one point last summer before yanking the deal off the table. Sexton fired his agent and hired Rich Paul for his restricted free agency this summer. The relationship between the two sides soured a bit, according to multiple sources, when the Cavs wouldn’t make Sexton an offer but wouldn’t release him from his qualifying offer, either. The Cavs seemed content letting Sexton, who struggled to get an offer sheet in free agency, play out this season on the qualifying offer before allowing Sexton to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The deal for Mitchell emerged at the perfect time, getting Sexton paid elsewhere while avoiding an uncomfortable scenario this season in Cleveland.
It also streamlines the rotation. Sexton and Caris LeVert were duplicates in their roles, and it was going to be difficult to find minutes for Agbaji. Now Garland and Mitchell are the obvious backcourt starters, Mobley and Allen will start in the frontcourt while LeVert and Kevin Love provide terrific depth as veterans off the bench.
The small forward position remains a work in progress, but Isaac Okoro will likely fill it for now. The Cavs don’t need much offense from that spot with all the weapons around him. That projected starting lineup — Garland, Mitchell, Okoro, Mobley and Allen — will have an average age of 23.3 years on opening night. All five are under team control for at least the next three seasons with the potential to be much, much longer. Garland’s new deal can keep him in Cleveland until 2028 and a max extension for Mobley, which is how he’s already trending, would have the potential to keep him in Cleveland until 2029. Allen can’t be a free agent until 2026.
Since Sexton missed 71 games last season with a knee injury, the only player lost in the Mitchell trade is Markkanen. While he enjoyed a career revival during his one season in Cleveland, Markkanen was playing out of position on the wing.
One other important component: The trade easily accomplishes the Cavs’ goal of avoiding the luxury tax this season. Not only that, but the salaries they cleared in this deal, coupled with Love’s mammoth extension coming off the books next summer, means the Cavs could avoid being a tax-paying team for the next couple of years.
It isn’t so much the tax that is a concern for Cavs ownership, but with a team this young trying to maximize its contention window, starting the clock on the more punitive repeat offender taxes is the real issue. Delaying that as long as possible should allow the team to even squeeze in a Mobley extension before the escalated repeat offender taxes arrived.
The Jazz got what they wanted. With Danny Ainge in place as the franchise’s CEO, Utah is replicating what Ainge did in Boston when he quickly flipped the Celtics’ roster with the trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. The Celtics only missed the playoffs once after the teardown and were back in the conference finals just four years after that blockbuster deal.
For Cleveland, moving out all of those draft picks is well worth it for a lineup that should boast four potential All-Stars.
Trade discussions that began during the summer league in Las Vegas culminated in a deal nearly two months later. And six years after celebrating the only championship in franchise history, the Cavs are back at the high-rollers table, blowing on the dice again. New shooter, new shooter.
(Photo of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland: Jason Miller / Getty Images)