CLEVELAND, Ohio – Weeks after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season ended with consecutive championship losses against Brooklyn and Atlanta, head of basketball operations Kobe Altman stood inside the Cleveland Clinic court and summed up the successful and painful season. When asked specifically if it was time to raise expectations in the wake of a 44-win season – a massive step forward in the post-LeBron James era – Altman put off the calendar. That was in April. The Cavs had a critical sabbatical ahead. There were plans, at least, to tamper with the list. The boot camp was more than five months away.
Altman – and the rest of the organization – couldn’t lower expectations any longer. Not yet a huge deal with Donovan Mitchell brought the Cleveland Rockets back into the competition.
The Cavs are no longer the story of the complacent underdog – an under-the-radar franchise that has methodically and organically pulled itself out of the rubble. They are the strength of the Eastern Conference, entering the season with a symbolic goal on their back. This is uncharted territory. At least since 2018, when LeBron sent the organization into a sometimes painful rebuild, going 99 games under 0.500 in the first three seasons without him.
There have been missteps along the way. Many players came and went. It took four attempts to get the right coach. The loss had its effect. But the Cleveland team believed in their plan even when others – inside and outside the organization – questioned their plan.
This is no longer a rebuild. It is a resurrection.
With skillful drafting, shrewd deals, timely engagements, patience and a little luck, Altman and his team of front office executives have changed the course of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
The Cavs already had three Big Three built naturally with Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. They just added a three-time All-Star to it – a quartet that makes up one of the best young cores in the NBA.
Mitchell will turn 26 on Wednesday. Entering the peak of his career, he is under contract during the 2024-25 season (with a player option in 2025-26). Garland, 22, is a comedian from the All-Star campaign, where he was also named a Finalist for Most Improved Player. He signed a five-year extension worth a maximum of $193 million at the start of the free agency this off-season. Allen was Cleveland’s second star last season, validating the $100 million deal he got from the Cavs last summer after a fantastic deal with Brooklyn. Mobley may be the most talented of the bunch – a 21-year-old rhino who has drawn comparisons to NBA Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.
While immediate expectations are high, such a unique setup gives Cleveland time to grow, and time to rise to the top, with a sustainable competition window that must open for at least the next half-decade.
There were two potential avenues to improve this off season. Due to the limited cover space available, the Cavs could have brought back much of their roster, relying on internal optimization with a few minor tweaks. Or they could have gone a different route, and radically changed an important trade.
For much of the summer, it looked like Cleveland would take the first route. They added veterans Raul Neto, Ricky Rubio and Robin Lopez in free agency. They drafted sniper Ochai Agbaji – an NBA-ready rookie who was expected to offer a different offensive dimension. They extended the qualifying bid for shooting guard Colin Sexton, making him a restricted free agent.
Excitement surrounded the upcoming season. There was a feeling that the business was unfinished.
But the opportunistic front office kept exploring options. The chance to add a player like Mitchell – his star man who fits the schedule, keeps the team under control for the next few years and raises the bar for talent – doesn’t always come up. The Cleveland team jumped on him.
For two months of sporadic dialogue with Utah, Cleveland decision-makers have been pessimistic. The price seemed too high. Jazz seemed more interested in the Knicks package. Many Cavs believed New York could – and should – beat their bid. Until the end, the Cavs didn’t think they’d get the winning bid.
But they did – with the help of the asset-rich Knicks. New York agreed to extend a $107 million contract with striker RJ Barrett – the player at the center of business discussions between Utah and New York – and talks collapsed soon after. With the Knicks out of the race, the Cavs got engaged and quickly struck a deal for Mitchell – one of the most important deals in franchise history. She commissioned Sexton, Agbaji, Lauri Markkanen and three first-round unprotected picks (2025, 2027 and 2029). A pair of selection swaps are also included.
Among the players distributed away from home, replacing Markkanen will be the most difficult. Regardless of what anyone thought of Cleveland’s long-ball experience and whether Markkanen was seen as a true long-term solution for the little forward, he was they The best choice, to help create a unique and successful front court. With Markkanen flanked by Mobley and Allen, Cleveland boasted a clever, versatile, convertible 3-foot, and 7-foot-skill. With them on the field together, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 109.9 and a miser rating of 102.0 at the other end. They outperformed opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions. Markkanen also brought a necessary element of the attack – firing and spacing of the ground.
With him gone, the Cavs once again had a small gap in the front. There are a few interior options – Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens. Levert and Okoro more 2 seconds than 3 seconds. None of the five players are junior attackers. Despite its proximity to the training camp, the Cavs could continue to look for a promotion. They now have a spot on the roster and are off luxury taxes by about $2.5 million, making it possible to sign a free agent at a bare minimum. But the options are not very attractive.
Carmelo Anthony? Trevor Ariza? Gary Clark Jr.? DeAndre’ Bembry? Timothy Luau Caparrot? Tony Snell? Rodney Hood? Andre Iguodala?
While there aren’t many commercial assets left after the Mitchell deal, the Cavs could bring together some future players in the second round with Usman, Dylan Wendler or Levert – and his precious contract is expiring. But the odds of the Trade Pack returning for a noteworthy upgrade seem unrealistic. Then again, who would have thought the Cavs could get Mitchell without including any of the three most important young players?
Utah is open for trading with Bojan Bogdanovic. Sacramento got calls about Harrison Barnes. Knicks will probably be willing to take on Cam Reddish. Duncan Robinson seems highly unlikely due to his bloated contract eating away at his paycheck. Jae Crowder is said to be available.
Either way, Cleveland’s current petite situation isn’t ideal. But getting a player like Mitchell is expensive. It takes a meaningful piece—or two, or three. There must be some painful decisions involved. A weak little front point may just be a short term pain point that Cavs must suffer from until a better option comes along. It’s not a perfect list. The Cleveland Four Pillar Support Team is still a work in progress.
This is why there are questions about the exact place of the Cavs in the Eastern hierarchy.
Should Boston and Milwaukee be viewed on a different level? What about Miami, Philadelphia and Brooklyn? Could the revamped Cavs beat Toronto and Chicago – the two teams that finished last year with a better record – and avoid playing in the tournament? How does Atlanta, with newly acquired Dejounte Murray, fit in with the other Eastern teams?
However, the conversation has changed drastically with the acquisition of Mitchell. Faster than anyone expected.
Rebuilding Cleveland began four years ago, when LeBron left for Los Angeles. At the time, the Cavs had just added Sexton with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft from the Brooklyn Nets — the first envisioned building block for the new era. Sexton was once considered the crown jewel of Kyrie Irving’s business in 2017 – Altman’s first major move after taking over GM from his friend and mentor David Griffin – Sexton turned out to be a key part in acquiring Mitchell. Without Irving trading and getting, among other pieces, the highly valued “Brooklyn Pick” there would be no Sexton – or Markkanen. Maybe not Mitchell either.
The line that connects the two trades is crooked and zigzag. But Cleveland reached its destination. Every chess move played a role. They have three stars – something that the NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors, match. Mobley may soon become the fourth.
They are back near the top. Exactly where they stood before James left.
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