The Cleveland Cavaliers are stuck in a state of limbo as the calendar turns to 2024.
On the one hand, they entered the season with high expectations. Last season they had the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and the second-best net rating in the entire NBA. Then this summer they kept all of their top-7 players and added Max Strus, Georges Niang and Ty Jerome to that group to improve the shooting.
On the other hand, this season has not gone as expected. They began the season with Jarrett Allen on the shelf, then lost Ty Jerome in the second game to an injury he still hasn't returned from. Darius Garland missed time, then Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert. Dean Wade spent time out of the lineup.
Now the Cavs are in the midst of an extended stretch without Garland (broken jaw) or Evan Mobley (knee injury), and Ricky Rubio just retired without playing a single game for the Cavaliers this season. In face, the only Cavs to be consistently available this season are newcomers: Max Strus, Georges Niang and undrafted rookie Craig Porter Jr.
The Cavaliers remain in their state of limbo
To the Cavaliers' credit they haven't let the current injuries shatter their season, but they have fought back and gone 8-3 in the 11 games since Garland and Mobley had surgery. That has kept them in the mix in the East, but also kept them in limbo.
Where are the Cavaliers heading this season? Can they still push for a playoff run if Garland and Mobley return healthy? Or will the absences and structural issues with the roster even at full-strength keep them outside of the circle of contending teams?
The question matters on its own merits, but it matters even more given the pressure of Donovan Mitchell's free agency on this season. Mitchell will make a decision on whether or not to sign an extension this summer; if he does not, he can become a free agent the following summer in 2025.
Is a deep playoff run necessary for Mitchell to sign that extension and commit to the Cavaliers long-term? Would he do so even without that? And if he won't, can the Cavs afford to let him walk in free agency or do they trade him and recoup assets from their best player?
Those questions are hanging over the team, are being discussed behind closed doors in their front office, and are being theorized on by those outside of the team. Everyone wants to know: how do the Cavaliers see themselves? Are they a contender looking to further upgrade? Or are they still a few years away and ready to move on from Mitchell?
What is Cleveland's plan on the trade market?
Marc Stein, one of the league's most plugged-in insiders, saw these questions and worked to find some answers. He made the Cavaliers the central topic of his latest Substack piece and reported on how the Cavaliers answer those questions at this point in the season.
On the topic of Mitchell, Stein reports that the Cavaliers "continue to send signals that they have no interest in fielding trade offers for Donovan Mitchell. Zero interest."
The pessimism that may exist around the league on Cleveland's chances at signing Mitchell long-term hasn't forced the Cavs' hands, at least not yet. With the team playing well and Mitchell not pushing for a trade, the Cavaliers are moving forward this season with Mitchell off the market.
Similarly, Stein reports that Jarrett Allen is "playing some of the best basketball of his career" and that the Cavaliers are not willing to dela Allen any time soon.
If they are not open to moving Mitchell or Allen -- and to be clear, any stance on trading a player is set in stone until it isn't, so it's still possible that the Cavaliers deal one of them if the right deal comes along at the right time -- who then are the Cavaliers targeting in trade talks?
Both Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and Stein in his Substack have reported in the past few days that Cleveland's desire this trade season is a 3-and-D wing to upgrade their rotation ahead of another postseason run.
The surprise here is not that the Cavaliers want more 3-and-D wings; at least 25 other teams are looking for the same thing. The Cavaliers in particular have needed one for years as they have developed deep backcourts and frontcourts but struggling to have true forwards. Dean Wade has held down the fort for multiple years. Max Strus has started at the 3 but is udnersized, as is Isaac Okoro. Georges Niang isn't bringing much of the 'D' and is more of a classic 4.
What's more noteworthy is that the Cavaliers are still all-in on this season. They look at their roster and the Eastern Conference around them and have concluded they can make a run. The quality of talent on their roster supports that conclusion. Yet the pieces haven't fit perfectly and the Cavs have had to work on the puzzle with various pieces unavailable at any given time.
The Cavaliers are historically one of the more active teams at the Trade Deadline each season, and this year will likely be no exception. According to the most recent intel, the Cavs will be looking to add to a contender rather than retooling for a future run.