NBA rebuilds have become increasingly seamless in recent years. Although there are slight variations in the process, they generally tend to follow some version of this cycle:
- Being bad for a few years. Accumulate lottery picks.
- Turn those lottery picks into players capable of reaching the playoffs.
- Trade a stack of future picks for another current star to help these young lottery picks make a championship push.
We saw two textbook examples earlier in the offseason. Minnesota, fresh from its first playoff spot since 2018, traded four first-round picks, a trade and several players to Utah for Rudy Gobert. Atlanta, after back-to-back trips to the playoffs that followed three years in the lottery, gave up three picks and a trade for Dejounte Murray.
This is a reasonable progression for several reasons. From a salary standpoint, this allows teams to add expensive players while their youngsters are still earning below market value. It also avoids the wanderlust that top players experience at an increasingly younger age. Your best player needn’t dream of teaming up with another big name somewhere else when he can do it in his own backyard. And then there’s the obvious: adding a great player helps a good team win basketball games.
That’s why the price is so high, and in many cases, prohibitive. The Knicks chose not to trade for Donovan Mitchell. It’s not just the value of lost choices, but what they represent. Unless you have an endless war chest like Oklahoma City, you can only trade all of your picks once. Make a bad deal and you’re stuck with the wrong list indefinitely. An incorrigible listing is the easiest way to lose a star. Imagine if Brooklyn needed to trade Kevin Durant this offseason when Houston controlled its next five first-round picks and you’ll understand the seriousness of the risk such a star trade poses to most teams.
That’s what makes Cleveland’s acquisition of Mitchell such a landslide victory for the franchise. They managed to land a 25-year-old All-Star without taking such a risk. For a multitude of reasons, they may have just made one of the safest superstar trades in recent memory.
Mitchell’s contract is a central reason for this. With three guaranteed years remaining on his contract and a relatively clean bill of health, the Cavaliers can not only be relatively certain that Mitchell will play at the All-Star level for them, but, if necessary, maintain the appeal of an All-Star. in future trade negotiations if things go wrong. While All-Stars on expiring contracts typically don’t pick up the same packages as those on long-term contracts, they usually still manage to bring back meaningful hauls even when the acquisition team is unsure of their future.
The Raptors got a bargain on Kawhi Leonard due to his expiring contract, but DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick are hardly in the coin. Paul George signed up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis from a Thunder team ready to roll the dice on George ahead of free agency, and while neither had the cache they would one day win, Sabonis was one step away. year of being picked No. 11 overall and Oladipo had just signed an $80 million contract. Both had value.
So imagine a worst-case scenario where it goes south for Cleveland and the New York native ends up wanting to go home in 2024. The Cavaliers probably couldn’t recoup the picks they invested in Mitchell, but that might require an older RJ Barrett. back in a deal with the Knicks, or if it’s grown beyond inclusion in such talks, try to reclaim the kind of rental package Toronto and Oklahoma City once paid for their own former stars . Barrett, a big wing who can shoot, dribble and defend, would fit right into Cleveland’s current core. So would any number of other players they could probably get back in a second Mitchell trade if it became necessary.
The bar would be significantly lower for Cleveland at this point than for most teams trying to move a star because the Cavaliers already have three. They wouldn’t need a Mitchell package to start a rebuild. With Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen still under the control of the team, they would be looking for veterans who would match them. Such players are almost always available when stars are on the table. Utah picked up several starting-caliber veterans as mere salary fillers in the Gobert deal.
These starting stars also limit the pick advantage Cleveland offers. The final pick of the deal will be passed on in 2029, which would follow Mobley’s eighth NBA season. Even though he is forced to sign a four-year rookie extension due to Mitchell and Garland occupying the team’s two designated rookie pay brackets, he would still be under contract through the 2028-29 season. Garland is signed throughout the 2027-28 campaign. Allen is under contract until 2026. All three are 24 or younger. Barring injuries, this line should be good enough for Cleveland for the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t make it a bad trade for Utah. The Jazz have accumulated so much temporary capital that at this point, simple diversification matters. Getting unprotected picks from another team increases the chances of things going haywire for at least one of them down the line. But the Cavs shouldn’t be so worried about sending Danny Ainge the kind of pick Brooklyn once made. Even if Mitchell decides not to stay in Cleveland, their future was already bright enough to avoid such a disaster.
It’s the security that Atlanta and Minnesota didn’t quite have. The Hawks only have two years with Murray, and due to the CBA’s limiting extension rules, they are in serious danger of losing him as an unrestricted free agent if things go wrong. Minnesota’s risk lies in Gobert’s age. It is very valuable today. He’s also 30 and relies heavily on athleticism which could wear off pretty quickly. Neither team can get off their current roster as easily if needed as Cleveland. Most teams that make the kind of all-in move that we typically see for superstars can only make that move once. That may not be true for Cleveland. They’re not even locked into their current supporting cast.
Mobley is still on a rookie contract. Allen signed a $100 million contract last offseason that seemed bigger at the time than it actually was. This deal does not include annual raises, so he will earn a flat $20 million for the next four seasons despite annual cap jumps. Even with Mitchell and Garland factored to the max and Okoro and Ricky Rubio still on the books, they have less than $110 million in committed salary for the 2023-24 season. This season’s cap is currently projected at $133 million.
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If they need to reshape the non-featured part of their roster through free agency in a year, they can do that. If they want to chase a major fifth piece, throwing Okoro and Rubio down while declining their team option on Cedi Osman could land them around $30 million in the space. How does Jerami Grant sound as the wing defender that this team lacks? Harrison Barnes and Kyle Kuzma also make sense.
They might even have a chance of getting a bigger prize a year later. Just when you thought the LeBron James rumors might be put to bed once and for all, it should be noted that for all the picks Cleveland just gave up, their last uneventful first-round selection will come in 2024… when Bronny James becomes draft eligible and eldest LeBron can become a free agent again. Do what you want with it.
While the Cavaliers surely aren’t obsessed with another James reunion, it all likely combined to drive their decision to sacrifice nearly all of his remaining draft capital. Even without more picks to trade, the Cavs have retained an important option going forward. If they need to use free agency next offseason, they can. If they need to make another big trade in two summers, they can do that too. They can do all of this knowing that Garland and Mobley are giving them an extremely high floor for most of the rest of the decade. With that floor safely installed, they home-run Mitchell to try and raise their cap and in doing so, managed to make the kind of low-risk, high-reward trade that most front- offices can only dream.