Two months ago, the idea of trading Donovan Mitchell during this season seemed ludicrous. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not a franchise that expects to have an unending line of star players waiting to play in northern Ohio. Now that they had a star to lead the offense they weren't going to give him up lightly.
That stance was eminently reasonable when Mitchell was surrounded by a young, deep and talented roster poised to be fighting at the top of the standings. They had the league's second-best net rating last season, after all, and added shooting to a roster that otherwise retained its top eight players. Why trade Mitchell now before they had a chance to make a run this postseason?
Why the Cavaliers could consider trading Mitchell
The situation has changed significantly since then. The Cavaliers opened the season without one starter, lost another in that first game, and have stumbled through the first two months of the season, at times looking held back by missing players, and at others showing the hint of the potent two-way force they can be. That inconsistency has resulted in a 13-12 record and a negative point differential through 25 games.
A fully healthy Cavaliers team could look at their record, point to the injuries, and convince themselves a surge was coming. That's a much tougher yarn to spin given the news that just came out: Mitchell's All-Star running mate, Darius Garland, is expected to miss multiple weeks recovering from a fractured jaw. What's worse, young defensive phenom Evan Mobley is getting knee surgery and will miss at least 6-8 weeks.
The Cavaliers went 1-3 in games that Mobley has missed, and they had Garland available for all of those. Things could get ugly in Cleveland very quickly, and it's possible that in another month they are fighting just to stay in the Play-In race.
Is that a situation that Donovan Mitchell wants to commit to? Perhaps he'll maintain belief in this team, and they can make a late-season run into the postseason and make some noise. It's much more likely that something else goes wrong -- Mobley is out longer than expected, or any other rotation player misses time -- and that ground becomes impossible to make up.
If Mitchell is unlikely to commit next summer to a team with 0 playoff series wins (and perhaps just one playoff win total if they can't play their way out of the Play-In) then by waiting the Cavaliers would simply be reducing the return that they can get for Mitchell in a trade. It's a hard decision to pull the rip-cord, but whether it's the Cavs reading the writing on the wall or Mitchell tipping his hand as to his plans, it's no longer unreasonable to think that the Cavaliers could move Mitchell as early as this Trade Deadline.
Who could trade for Donovan Mitchell?
If that's the case, the obvious suitors will be involved. The New York Knicks have long coveted Mitchell's services, and their confidence in re-signing the guard to play for his hometown team should be quite high. The Miami Heat will make another run at a star guard after missing out on Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday. The Philadelphia 76ers are hunting for another star.
Another suitor was recently reported to be interest in Mitchell, and while they're not the obvious choice, they also make a lot of sense. Matt Moore of the Action Network linked the Brooklyn Nets to any potential Donovan Mitchell trade.
If the New York Knicks have appeal for being in Mitchell's hometown, then so do the Brooklyn-based Nets. The Nets also don't have a small guard already established in the backcourt, as the Knicks do with Jalen Brunson, so their pursuit makes more sense stylistically. As Moore also notes, they have a "plethora of assets" after trading Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving last season to help get a deal done.
The Cavaliers would obviously covet Mikal Bridges in such a deal, the perfect two-way fit with the rest of their core, but presumably the Nets are hunting for a star to pair with Bridges. Could Cam Johnson be on the table? That seems more reasonable. Spencer Dinwiddie, Royce O'Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith are other veteran options to match Mitchell's salary, and young players such as Cam Thomas and Dariq Whitehead could be sweeteners alongside draft capital. The Cavs certainly aren't taking back Ben Simmons' contract.
The stars who may be available at this year's Trade Deadline are not of the caliber of last year, when Durant, Irving and Bridges changed hands. This past summer Kristaps Porzingis, Chris Paul and Bradley Beal were moved. The month before the season saw Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday moved. Names like Zach LaVine's contract and Pascal Siakam are perhaps in the same realm as Holiday or Paul, but they may not even be moved.
If the Cavaliers made Donovan Mitchell available he would instantly be the hottest name on the market, creating external leverage to get back a premium return. If the Cavs see that their season is going nowhere, and know that Mitchell is not re-signing in the summer of 2025 (or even that he won't be signing an extension this upcoming summer) they need to consider moving Mitchell now, when the team adding him will get two postseason runs out of him.
It's not the outcome the Cavaliers wanted. It's certainly not what they expected. But a slow start and some dispiriting injuries could be preparing a path to a Donovan Mitchell exit. If so, watch out for the Brooklyn Nets as an unexpected but powerful suitor to add the dynamic guard.