What If: Are Cavaliers better if they don’t make the Mitchell trade?

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers and Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz. Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers and Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz. Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images /
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Cleveland Cavaliers
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images /

Would the Cavaliers be better?

When looking back at the Donovan Mitchell trade, there is a common refrain that Lauri Markkanen would not have taken the step forward that he did if he had stayed in Cleveland. There is some truth to that, as Jazz head coach Will Hardy installed an offensive system that played to Markkanen’s strengths. Markkanen went from averaging 14.8 points per game with Cleveland to 25.6 points per game with Utah.

Yet to say that Markkanen doesn’t take a step forward with the Cavs is an overcorrection. He took a personal step forward over the offseason even before he was traded, looking like a star with the Finland National Team in EuroBasket. He probably would have been fully installed as the Cavs’ second option on offense over the summer and went into this past season with more of an offensive role.

Without Mitchell on the team Garland also likely takes a statistical step forward that he was unable to take this past year. In the real timeline, Garland spent the 2022-23 season improving as a complementary player; in this timeline, he has the reigns to the offense and repeats as an All-Star on a higher volume of shots.

The defense is likely just as good, if not better, if the Mitchell deal never happened. The ceiling of the offense is likely capped a bit, but there would have been room for both Garland and Markkanen to thrive. They also wouldn’t have traded away their two best movement shooters, a problem that stifled them at times this year. It’s very possible that they put up a similar season in terms of team wins and final place in the standings.

Heading into this past offseason, then, the Cavaliers would have had their full complement of draft picks moving forward and a more valuable Lauri Markkanen. They could use those picks judiciously to add rotation depth, or they could have still made an all-in trade with better negotiating strength, either using Markkanen as the centerpiece of a deal or being comfortable moving Jarrett Allen for a wing.

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No one saw this breakout coming from Lauri Markkanen, but you don’t need the benefit of hindsight to have seen that the Cavs were committing to a very small backcourt and spending all of their assets to do that. Not making the trade is an unknown, but there’s a very real chance they’re in a better position today if they never made the deal.