CLEVELAND — When everything is finished by the end of the decade, the Utah Jazz’s trade of Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves may go down as one of the most lucrative deals in NBA history. The Jazz own four first-round picks from the Wolves, three of them unprotected. Walker Kessler became a throw-in to the deal and is already one of the better rookies in the league. There is a pick swap. And, there’s hardly a guarantee that Gobert is with the Wolves through the year 2029, when the last first-round pick is likely to convey.
Utah’s trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which sent Donovan Mitchell east to Ohio, is a lot more even at this point. It’s not as if Cleveland didn’t give up a ransom for Mitchell, because it did. There are three unprotected first round picks. Lauri Markkanen has quickly become Utah’s best player. Collin Sexton is a solid piece. Ochai Agbaji is a long-term piece needing to be developed, and there are multiple pick swaps.
That being said, Mitchell is playing at such an astronomical level right now that, for everything the Cavaliers dealt for him, it’s been worth it. And maybe then some.
“It looks a like a win-win to me, and you love to see something like that,” Mitchell said Monday. “It’s good to see Lauri doing his thing and the Jazz playing well. I’m happy in Cleveland, so sometimes, these kinds of things work out for the best.”
The Jazz were smoked 122-99 in Cleveland on Monday night. It was the second consecutive game in which the Jazz were non-competitive over 48 minutes. It was the second straight game in which the Jazz were beaten physically by a bigger and stronger team. It was the second straight game in which head coach Will Hardy went deep into his bench and waved the white flag with over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Mitchell scored 23 points in 23 minutes. He made eight of his 12 shots of him. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter. Had he been given reason to, he certainly could have gone for much more than an offensive explosion.
Whereas Minnesota dealing for Gobert is proving to be a giant gamble now and into the future, the Cavaliers are morphing into title contenders. Mitchell is proving to be the proverbial icing for a team that already had the requisite pieces in hand. And now, Cleveland is 21-11, in third place in the Eastern Conference, possibly the best home-court team in the league and certainly one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Mitchell is averaging 29 points, almost five assists and almost four rebounds a night. He’s playing at a career level and is a lock at this point to be named to his first all-NBA team. He should be firmly in the league’s MVP conversation, if we were to have that conversation right now. He’s even moving his feet and expending energy defensively.
That makes what Cleveland surrendered for him worth it, which is a testament to Mitchell’s greatness this season, because the Cavaliers gave up a lot.
When the trade first happened, the unprotected picks were what many highlighted. But the Jazz were quietly excited about Markkanen and his potential within Hardy’s offense. They thought he would be a good fit, and they thought he could be a guy who could have a breakout season.
They were correct on almost all counts. Markkanen has been a mismatch this season as a versatile power forward playing all over the floor. He’s averaging 22 points and eight rebounds per night. He’s giving the Jazz a No. 1 option on a team that relies on its strength in numbers. He’s someone who should find himself in the All-Star conversation once February rolls around, especially if the Jazz can keep their record above the .500 mark or even better.
But, if the Gobert trade seems on the surface to be a little easier to project for the Jazz, the Mitchell trade may need to play out a bit. The first pick doesn’t convey until 2025. By that time, we’ll know whether or not Mitchell, who has a player option for 2025-26, will stay with the Cavaliers through unrestricted free agency. If he doesn’t, then that trade has the potential to get a lot better for the Jazz on the back end.
But, by 2025, there is a chance Cleveland has either won an NBA title or played in the NBA Finals. The Cavs are that good and balanced on both ends of the floor. Mitchell and Darius Garland are that explosive of a backcourt. Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are that good of a front court.
Even if the Cavaliers don’t win it this season, they aren’t far away. And Mitchell’s presence gives them a home-run hitter not many teams have. As good as he is in regular seasons, he typically raises his game in postseasons. Combine that with the length and the athleticism the Cavaliers have around him, and Cleveland is in a good spot.
Whether or not Mitchell stays in Cleveland, this is a good deal for the Jazz. When you control the draft of a team for five consecutive years, that’s a good deal. Utah can stand pat and make those picks. Or the Jazz can bundle some or all of them and make a move for a star at some point. There’s no right or wrong answer there. Right now, Utah has maybe the most assets of any team in the NBA. The pieces the Jazz have on the chess board are seemingly unlimited.
But, if this deal is to strike gold for Utah, Mitchell probably has to leave in free agency. If he doesn’t, then the picks seem destined for the teens and 20s of the first round.
Between the Cavaliers and the Timberwolves, Utah has given itself almost a decade of forcing those two teams to be perfect. A slip in play, a key injury or a team simply not being good enough, and that equals lottery pick.
Around the NBA, we are seeing this strategy pay off in multiple places. The Los Angeles Lakers certainly got what they wanted out of the Anthony Davis deal because they won the 2020 NBA championship. In 2022, the Lakers are on the struggle bus and headed toward a lottery pick that will convey to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Davis deal won one team a title. It might win the other team a title as well.
In Chicago, the Bulls are falling apart and heading for a lottery pick. One problem: They owe a top-four protected pick to the Orlando Magic, so it’s actually in Chicago’s best interest to tank hard for the remainder of the season.
When the Davis and Nikola Vučević trades were made, neither the Lakers nor Chicago thought the collective fortunes of this season would be a possible outcome. And that’s what makes Utah’s deals with Minnesota and Cleveland intriguing. Both of those teams are under pressure to be good and stay good, basically through the end of the decade, when the NBA is almost a month-to-month business.
What’s clear in Mitchell’s case is that he and the Jazz simply needed to move on. Mitchell was clearly not happy in Utah. He never made a trade demand, but he never gave the Jazz front office an indication that he would stay with the franchise beyond his current contract. In that sense, the Jazz made a move similar to what their previous front office did in dealing Deron Williams in 2011. They moved Mitchell while he still had value. Mitchell deserves a lot of credit in that sense. His ability to stay quiet over the summer, not make any waves, not make a trade demand or not make his true feelings public, it allowed the Jazz to work behind the scenes, extract maximum value and do right by Mitchell in placing him in a great basketball situation.
Mitchell and the Jazz got what they needed. On Monday night, they got their first meeting out of the way. And in January, they will see each other in Salt Lake City at Vivint Arena.
(Photo of Donovan Mitchell and Collin Sexton: Jason Miller / Getty Images)