With four All-Star level players on the roster — Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland have all made an All-Star team, and soon-to-be sophomore Evan Mobley hasn’t but could be the best of the bunch — the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be good after their trade for Mitchell. They are a playoff team (I think their regular-season range is No.4-7 seed, the East is deep).
The Cavaliers are not title contenders.
Not yet, anyway.
But they can be — this team is young, Mitchell will be their oldest starter at 26 — it’s just going to take a combination of internal growth and some clever moves from the front office to round out the roster. Here are the three things the Cavaliers need to happen to become a title contender.
1. Evan Mobley develops into a true No.1 option
The Cavaliers do not have a true championship-level No.1 scoring option. Mitchell is very good at shot creation, but he is not that guy — rank the best players in the NBA and he falls somewhere between 15 and 23, depending on who you ask. Mitchell is a deserving All-Star and max player, but he is not a top 10 player in the league, not a guy who many around the league consider the best player on a championship team.
Mobley has the potential to be that guy.
In three years, Evan Mobley could — and should — be the best player on this team. As a rookie he was already a top-level NBA defender and paint protector, a guy who deserved All-Defensive Team consideration and was pulling down 8.3 rebounds a game. On offense, he averaged 15 points a night and was a strong finisher around the rim, plus he showed some passing skills and the ability to set up others.
Mobley is the guy who could become a top-10 player in the league if his offense can catch up to his defense. Mobley must improve his jump shot — reports from summer workouts are promising — and his handles to do more shot creation. He’s also just 21. If he can take significant steps forward on offense over the next few years, the Cavs could have their No.1 option.
The one small challenge will be Mobley’s rookie contract extension — he’s a clear max guy, but with two other designated max rookie contracts on the books (Garland and Mitchell), the Cavs can’t sign him to one. It is not that big a deal, but it will require some finesse. The Cavaliers can extend Mobley on a four-year max deal, not five (something Mobley may want with the new television deal expected to bump up the salary cap), or they can wait until he is a free agent and then give him the full five-year deal (what the Pelicans did with Brandon Ingram). The sides will talk and work it out, but there’s likely no drama in the contract.
The drama is how good Mobley can become.
2. Find an elite defensive wing
A backcourt of Mitchell and Garland creates the same problem that put a cap on how good the Portland Trail Blazers could be for years — they make a dynamic scoring backcourt but are two undersized guards who are defensive liabilities (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland; both Mitchell and Garland are 6’1″). It’s primarily a problem in the playoffs.
Mobley and Jarrett Allen — top defensive bigs who can move their feet and cover in space — will help mask that defensive concern. Still, Cavaliers GM Koby Altman has to find an elite defensive, versatile three.
The top of the East is stacked with elite wings: Boston has Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Milwaukee has Khris Middleton, Philadelphia has James Harden, the Nets have Kevin Durant, the Heat have Jimmy Butler, the Raptors have Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. As currently constructed, Cleveland does not have a good answer for these teams. Most likely Cedi Osman or Isaac Okoro will start at the three, but without an unexpected leap they are not the answer.
The Cavaliers are now light on trade capital and won’t have a lot of cap space to play with, Altman is going to have to be creative. But there can’t be a hole on the wing if the Cavaliers plan to contend for it all in a few years.
3. Keep Donovan Mitchell
The way this trade is structured, the Utah Jazz are betting Mitchell is in another jersey by the time his current contract ends. Mitchell has three guaranteed years remeaning on his contract but can opt out of a fourth year and become a free agent in the summer of 2025. Every first-round pick and pick-swap the Cavaliers sent the Jazz starts in 2025 and runs through 2029. Danny Ainge has made a bet the Cavaliers ultimately can’t keep this all together.
Cleveland was not on Mitchell’s list of preferred destinations (New York or Miami), but he was reportedly excited and running around a golf course when he found out he was officially going to Cleveland. Winning cures a lot of ills, and if the Cavaliers win enough and show enough promise, that could motivate Mitchell to stay. As will how welcomed he feels in Cleveland and with the organization.
Mitchell may be the lowest-maintenance superstar in the NBA, a guy good with fans and in the community. He will not be disruptive and the Cavs will get a real chance to make this work. But by the time it gets to 2024, Cleveland needs to talk honestly with Mitchell about his plans. If he is staying, they can talk next contract (with the jump in the salary cap extending is likely not an option), but if he wants out the Cavaliers can recoup some picks and what they gave up in a trade.
Maybe Mitchell is determined to be in New York. But a couple of seasons from now when these decisions have to be made is another lifetime in NBA years. The Cavaliers have time. They have a real chance to make this work.
The Cavaliers can become title contenders. They just need to take a few steps.