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Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Mitchell Trade Signals That Cavaliers Are In "Win Now" Mode

After weeks of "insider" speculation about where Donovan Mitchell would be traded, he ended up with a team that it is doubtful that any "insider" mentioned: the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don't publish "breaking news," but I do enjoy analyzing news after it is officially confirmed. To acquire Mitchell from the Utah Jazz, the Cavaliers gave up Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, and three future unprotected first round picks (2025, 2027, 2029), plus pick swaps in 2026 and 2028. 

The general guiding rule when evaluating an NBA trade is that the team that received the best player "won" the trade, barring unusual extenuating circumstances. This trade involves several draft picks, so it is hypothetically possible that Utah will "win" at some future time by drafting a player who is better than any player involved in this trade, but--based on what we know for sure now--Cleveland received the best player: Donovan Mitchell has already established himself as a consistent NBA All-Star.

Last season, Mitchell averaged 25.9 ppg, a career-high 5.3 apg, and 4.2 rpg with shooting splits of .448/.355/.853, numbers that are very similar to his career averages. In 39 playoff games, he has averaged 28.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, and 4.9 rpg with shooting splits of .431/.369/.865. He ranks seventh in ABA/NBA career playoff scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan, Luka Doncic, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, and LeBron James. Mitchell has made the All-Star team in each of the past three seasons, and he received All-NBA Team votes in each of his five professional seasons, though he has yet to be selected to the All-NBA Team. Mitchell has been criticized for his shot selection, his decision making in general (someone took the time to track how often Mitchell passed to specific teammates), and his defense, but there is no denying that he is a significant weapon as both a scorer and a playmaker.

In contrast, the second best player in the trade--Sexton--has yet to make the All-Star team, and his seasonal games played numbers have declined from 82 as a rookie to 65, 60, and then just 11 last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Sexton has been productive when he played, but he has not been as productive as Mitchell, he is not even close to being as durable, and he has not played in a single playoff game. 

Markannen is a good player to plug into an eight man rotation, but he is not a star and it is unlikely that he will become a star: the five year veteran posted his best numbers in season two, and he averaged 14.8 ppg and 5.7 rpg last season, a bit below his career norms in both categories.

Agbaji led Kansas to the 2022 NCAA title, and he was selected as the 2022 Final Four Most Outstanding Player. The consensus First Team All-American might turn into a great NBA player, a good NBA player, or a bust. That is the reality: until a college player plays against NBA competition, it is difficult to determine for sure how good he is.

I applaud the Cavaliers for trying to build the best team that they can build right now, regardless of whether or not their efforts will result in a championship. This is much better for the sport, the league, and the fans than the tanking epidemic that is plaguing the sport while making a mockery of the notion of authentic competition. Contrary to the proclamation of a book title that should have been fact-checked, the Philadelphia 76ers are not "Tanking to the Top," because no one has ever tanked to the top and it is unlikely that a team ever will tank to the top. The evidence demonstrates that tanking does not work, but that evidence has not been enough to persuade NBA teams to avoid tanking, and during the 2022-23 season NBA fans face the sorry prospect of watching several teams either actively trying to lose or, at best, making a half-hearted effort to win. 

Barring injuries and/or significant trades, the Milwaukee Bucks should be the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, followed closely by the Boston Celtics. The Brooklyn Nets have a lot of top line talent, but there are serious questions about team chemistry and depth--not to mention the availability of their "Big Three" players (particularly Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons). The Cavaliers could be a top four team "with a bullet"--a squad on the rise that could be dangerous this season before peaking in a year or two.

Mitchell is a prolific scorer who also is a capable passer and rebounder. He is just the sixth player in NBA history to amass at least 8000 points, at least 1500 assists, and at least 1400 rebounds through the first 345 games of his career, joining Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade. Mitchell provides dynamic scoring and shot creation that the Cavaliers did not previously have. Just as importantly, the Cavaliers have the necessary personnel to mask Mitchell's only skill set weakness: defense. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked fifth in points allowed and eighth in defensive field goal percentage. The Cavaliers, unlike many young teams, have bought into the concept that defense is important. Ideally, Mitchell will buy into that concept as well--something he has yet to do during his young career--but even if Mitchell never becomes a great defender the Cavaliers can protect him enough at that end of the court and then reap the benefits that he provides offensively. 

The Cavaliers have a bright future both short term and long term; they will, at the very least, be a solid playoff team this season, and they have the potential to develop into a championship contender. 

On the other hand, the Utah Jazz have a much cloudier future. This summer, the Jazz traded away their two best players--Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert--mainly for draft picks. I hope--for the sake of the league and the sake of the sport--that the Jazz attempt to be competitive this season and do not go into full tank mode to improve their draft positioning, but it looks like Utah, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and several other teams are in a furious race to the bottom that is bad for everyone: the league, the fans, the television networks, and anyone who believes the notion that sports are about competition and not about (mis)using so-called "analytics" as a shortcut to effective team-building. 

Barring a miracle--or a total collapse by multiple teams--the Jazz will not make the playoffs this season, and the only question is whether or not they will even try to be competitive on a game to game basis. It is worth spending a moment to discuss--and debunk--two widely held beliefs that are used to justify tanking. 

One is that draft picks are absolute gold, and they are more valuable than actual NBA players, because an NBA player's ability can be exactly measured (and is thus a fixed quantity) while a draft pick's potential is (theoretically) unlimited. The flaws in this way of thinking should be obvious, but for those who have not analyzed this in depth please note the following:

1) Most NBA draft picks wash out of the league sooner rather than later. This is a matter of simple arithmetic: there are 30 teams with 15 roster spots, and there are 60 draft picks per year. Each year, a few Lottery picks become good to great players, and a few lower draft choices become better than anyone (including the teams that drafted them) had reason to suspect they would become--but most draft picks just are not good enough to stick around for very long (there are also a small number of undrafted players who carve out successful NBA careers, which further illustrates that hoarding NBA draft picks is far from a guaranteed path to success). 

2) A player who has lasted a few years in the NBA has already "told" the world who he is as a player, for better or worse; at a minimum, he has proven that he has the necessary mentality, emotional stability, and physical skills to survive. A player who has not yet played in the NBA has not proven any of those three things.

3) Consequently, while it is obviously true that a small number of players who are not yet in the NBA will prove to be great, there is not a reliable method for consistently identifying those players. Each year, everyone knows who the top 10 or so picks will be--but no one knows which of those picks will pan out and which of those picks will wash out, and it is even less clear which players who are not top 10 prospects on paper will in fact turn out to be All-Stars.

Therefore, it is important to draft well, but it is fool's gold to just stockpile draft picks while gutting your roster of proven NBA players.

The second widely held but flawed belief that is relevant to this discussion is that the 1980s Boston Celtics provide a cautionary tale about what can go wrong if a team is kept together too long as opposed to being broken up in exchange for draft picks. The problems that the Celtics encountered in the 1990s did not happen because the Celtics kept Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish for too long; the problems happened because two of the Celtics' most promising young players died: Reggie Lewis established himself as an All-Star before passing away, and Len Bias was expected to be a great player before dying without ever playing in an NBA game. The Celtics obtained the draft rights to those players without tanking, and if those players had lived then Lewis certainly would have made a difference, and Bias may have made a difference as well. If the Celtics had gotten rid of their Hall of Fame frontcourt to tank and hoard draft picks it is doubtful that they would have ended up any better than they did. 

It is true that Bill Walsh, one of the greatest NFL coaches of all-time, firmly believed in getting rid of a player one year too soon as opposed to one year too late--but the brutal nature of pro football means that a football player can lose "it" much more suddenly than an NBA player; an NFL player, particularly one who relies on speed or on being able to absorb hits, can be very good one season and then almost useless the next season, but that kind of dramatic and swift decline is rare in the NBA (and is often caused by serious injury, drug abuse, and/or not taking care of one's body). An NBA player who avoids trouble off of the court, takes care of his body, and does not suffer a serious injury can be highly productive for 10-15 years or more, so getting rid of a proven player while rolling the dice that you can draft a better player is just that: a reckless roll of the dice, not an analytical decision supported by data.

I hope that the Jazz don't tank, but if they do tank then I wish the same thing for them that I wish for every team that tanks: that they stink for a long time. 

I credit the Cavaliers for not standing pat with a good young team, but instead making a move to improve the team's talent level, and I hope that the Cavaliers reach a level of success that contrasts with the Jazz and the "tankers" to such an extent that even the most ardent, delusional believers in tanking will be forced to admit the error of their ways.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM



At Tuesday, September 06, 2022 4:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems a bit odd what Utah is doing trading away their 2 best players, but the harsh reality is that they're not going anywhere past the 2nd round at best with their current roster or with these Gobert/Mitchell as their top 2 players. Mitchell is 2-5 in playoff series. He's been no better than a borderline top 20 player in any season, never had even 1 MVP vote, and he's tiny. Given Utah's roster these past 5 seasons, they've underachieved in the playoffs. I can see 1 or 2, maybe 3 seasons, but it's been 5 seasons. Change(s) needs to be made somewhere. CLE gave up a lot to acquire him. Maybe it'll help CLE in the end, who knows right now. 1st/2nd round every season which Utah has been achieving is very good overall, but I can't blame them for trying for more success.

At Tuesday, September 06, 2022 7:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I understand that the Jazz would like to advance past the first round, but giving up your two best players while gambling that years from now you will be able to draft better players is an odd (and demonstrably ineffective) way to try to improve. One might consider changing the coaching staff, the training staff, and the supporting cast around the All-Stars before assuming that the two best players on the team are the two biggest problems.

Cleveland gave up an injury-prone guard who has yet to make the All-Star team once, a solid rotation player, an unproven rookie, and a bunch of draft picks that may or may not amount to anything, and in exchange they received one of the NBA's top 20 players. The Cavaliers were solidly in the playoff hunt last season before being derailed by a slew of injuries. If they stay healthy, they will be very good this season, and Mitchell provides scoring and playmaking that were lacking last season.

So, Cleveland won the trade unless/until Utah proves that the draft picks are worth a lot.

I don't blame Utah for "trying for more success." I don't believe that Utah's methods are likely to lead to more success. Anyone can tear down a playoff team and start over, but building a team that can advance farther than the second round is not so easy.

Jerry Krause ran off Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman so that he could prove just how smart he was at building a championship team from scratch--and he did in fact prove just that, but not in the way that he expected or hoped. I am not a big believer in tearing something down unless there are very good reasons to think that you can build something better.


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