For just the second time in the last century, the Eastern Conference of the NBA defeated the Western Conference in a head-to-head game during the regular season last year. Because of how competitive the conference was, it took a winning record to even qualify for the play-in round. The East was surprisingly strong, and following Thursday, it ought to get even stronger.
Due to the three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell being traded from the Utah Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a historic deal that also included Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, and 2022 first-round pick Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks to Utah (2025, 2027, and 2029), two pick swaps (2026 and 2028), and three first-round picks to Cleveland (2026 and 2028). ESPN was the first to report on the exchange.
With All-Star Jarrett Allen and possibly a future All-Star Evan Mobley in the backcourt, Mitchell, who is only 25 years old, will now team up with All-Star Darius Garland. They should make up one of the NBA’s top young cores.
By matching its victory total from the previous season, Cleveland shockingly qualified for the postseason last year. It increased from 22 victories in 2020–21, which earned them the third overall choice and Mobley, to 44 victories in 2021–22. Even though they lost in the play-in tournament and missed the playoffs, that was sufficient for the eighth seed.
The Cavaliers, though, seemed to be improving since all of their top players are young. The addition of Mitchell should strengthen their position as postseason candidates and may allow them to move up to the top division of the conference, where teams like the Bucks, Heat, Celtics, and Sixers are likely to be found. Depending on how things go with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets may join that group.
The offensive end is where the Cavaliers need to improve the most, and Mitchell should help them do that. Cleveland’s defensive rating was ninth last year, but its offensive rating was only twenty. Mitchell had a career-high 53.3 effective field goal percentage while averaging 25.9 points per game last season. He has three more years left on his contract, which gives the Cavaliers time to compete in the near future.
Going into the season, there might be some concerns with the defensive pairing of Garland and Mitchell, who will essentially be an undersized backcourt. But Mitchell was an important part of Utah’s defense, which over the years was led by Rudy Gobert in the backcourt. Between Allen and Mobley in Cleveland’s frontcourt, he should have plenty of rim protection.
In trade speculations, Mitchell had been associated with the Wizards, though not in a significant way. Shams Charania of The Athletic frequently referred to them as being interested in Mitchell. Given that the Wizards’ first round picks from 2023 to 2026 are locked up in trade protections, it has always been challenging to accept an offer that includes enough first round picks, which the Jazz were obviously interested in.
The Knicks were viewed as the front-runners for Mitchell, a New York native, for a long time. Although they have several first-round picks, they apparently did not want to give up as many as the Cavaliers did in the end. Under the leadership of front office strategist Danny Ainge, the Jazz are totally committed to rebuilding through the draft.
Mitchell will now play more frequently for the Knicks, Wizards, and the rest of the Eastern Conference. He was eventually dealt, the Cavs are unquestionably superior, and the East will follow suit.