Donovan Mitchell to the ... Cavs?
I’m not gonna do a full breakdown on the Donovan Mitchell trade here, but I want to highlight two things I was prepared to discuss in the event that he got traded to the Knicks, which are still relevant after his trade to the Cavs.
The first is cost. Last summer, in the middle of the Ben Simmons saga, I wrote a piece for FiveThirtyEight looking at the history of All-Stars getting traded. We broke down those trades into six categories: Pieces and Picks, Prospects Only, Non-Star Veterans, Star-for-Star, Salary Dump, and Sign-and-Trade.
I posited that Simmons had not been traded yet because Daryl Morey was not getting the specific kind of offer he was looking for in return: a Star-for-Star deal. Such trades are rarer for what we called “mere” All-Stars: Players who had made the All-Star Game in at least one of the previous two seasons. They’re more common for Perennial All-Stars: Players who had made each of the three most recent All-Star Games.
Simmons was the latter type of player, and Morey wanted to use him to get another star, rather than take Pieces and Picks or Prospects Only or execute a Salary Dump. He proceeded to hold out until the deadline, when he finally got what he wanted in James Harden.
From the beginning of the summer, it’s been obvious that Danny Ainge has wanted to go the Pieces and Picks route with Donovan Mitchell. He traded the Jazz’s other perennial All-Star, Rudy Gobert, for a package that included three unprotected first-round picks, a protected first-round pick, a pick swap, and the rights to recent first-rounder Walker Kessler. One could say that’s six first-round picks in one deal.
With the Mitchell trade, he got the same thing. Three unprotected firsts, two swaps, and the rights to recent lottery pick Ochai Agbaji. Again: six picks.
In advance of a prospective Mitchell trade, I looked at the pick price for all of the “Perennial” All-Star trades since 2000. As I did so, one thing became clear…
As a wise man once said, price of the brick goin’ up. The most recent four of these trades all included at least six first-round assets. And the one before that included four. Prior to Anthony Davis being traded to the Lakers, though, none of those deals had ever fetched more than two first-round assets.
There are a few things that the calculus: One, these players are getting traded when they’re younger and still in their primes, as opposed to Shaq, Iverson, Ray Allen, and KG. And in the case of AD, PG, Harden, Gobert, and Mitchell, these guys are all “finishing touch” pieces for teams looking to take the next step as true contenders, not getting the first guy in the door. That might be a clue as to why the Cavs were willing to pony up more draft assets than were the Knicks.
The second thing I wanted to look at is the history of small backcourts on defense. Since the 2000-01 season, there have been 11 teams to give at least 41 starts to two players listed at 6-foot-1 or shorter. That includes the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Cavs with Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, and the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 Jazz with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell.
Those teams have, on average, been about league-average defensively. But that’s skewed by a couple of really high-level performances.
The 2019-20 Raptors had Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the backcourt, and they’re each high-level defenders themselves despite their size. That team also had OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and one of the most innovative defensive systems in the league. The 2020-21 Jazz had Rudy Gobert, one of the best defenders of the last few decades. Take out those two squads that finished in the top five defensively, and the rest of the group finished, on average, with the 18th-best defense in the league. It’s not awful, but it’s probably not championship quality.
The good news for the Cavs is that they are well-equipped to overcome such a small backcourt because they have Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. That’s an A+ interior defender who can handle himself on the perimeter, and an A+ all-court defender who played at an All-Defense as a rookie. You could hardly ask for a better pairing to cover up for the weaknesses that come with being so small in the backcourt.
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