The Cleveland Cavaliers could have run it back. Had they decided not to meet the Utah Jazz's asking price for three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell -- or had the New York Knicks decided to do so -- they would have returned largely the same team that, 60 percent of the way through 2021-22, was third in the East. Maybe they would have worked something out with restricted free agent Collin Sexton, so they'd have some more scoring punch.
But they wanted a lot more scoring punch. They wanted a proven playoff performer who has seen every type of defense there is. Their offense ranked 20th last season. Mitchell was the engine of the one that ranked first.
In a way, everything lined up perfectly in The Land. Mitchell, who turned 26 earlier this month, is the oldest member of Cleveland's core. He's thrilled to join 22-year-old Darius Garland and 24-year-old Jarrett Allen, who both made the All-Star team last season, and Evan Mobley, 21, who could be the face of the franchise. If you were to invent a theoretical team that should trade for a theoretical star entering his prime, it would be a young team on the upswing, with enough draft picks and contracts to get a deal done without losing its most important players.
This is not, however, a theoretical team trading for a theoretical star at a theoretically perfect time. It's the Cavs trading for Mitchell now. And there are questions about how the pieces are going to fit.
Every year in the playoffs, the effects of modern spacing become more pronounced. Every team wants to be versatile enough to play multiple ways, with multiple creators and as many shooters and switchable defenders as possible. It's not just slow-footed big men getting hunted on defense anymore; it's increasingly difficult for small playmakers like Mitchell and Garland to hide. At the same time, defenses are getting ever more brazen when it comes to cheating off poor or reluctant shooters. Cleveland's best perimeter defender, Isaac Okoro, had his minutes reduced in the play-in, and Mobley isn't a spot-up threat yet.
The Cavs built an excellent defense around their size and length last season. They weren't afraid of mismatches because they usually had a 7-footer tracking the ballhandler and often had another 7-footer ready to rotate. Their best lineups featured Allen, Mobley and the since-traded Lauri Markkanen. Ideally, this will work the same way with a new rotation, but it'll be tricky. If Allen and Mobley can't quite cover for the little guys and the zone doesn't hold up, they could take a step back defensively. If they prioritize putting their best defenders on the court, then the floor spacing will suffer and their offense might not improve the way they're envisioning.