What are the Cavaliers without Donovan Mitchell? Cleveland has more questions than answers

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BOSTON — An injured Donovan Mitchell stayed in the hallways of TD Garden long after his Cleveland Cavaliers lost a close-out Game 5 to the Boston Celtics, 113-98, dapping up each of his teammates upon their exit from the arena and congratulating rivals Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on his own way out.

There was no way of telling whether this was the five-time All-Star guard’s farewell to the organization he has known for the past two seasons, even as The Athletic published its postmortem on the Cavs’ season, complete with speculation about Mitchell’s wayward status and the future of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who in the aftermath of this series called this “a difficult year for us — for a bunch of different reasons.”

Mitchell, relegated to street clothes for the final two losses of the series with a left calf strain, was not made available to the media. For his part, Bickerstaff said, “I’ll keep showing up until they tell me not to.”

Cleveland framed its Eastern Conference semifinals exit as a steppingstone from last year’s disappointing first-round loss, but behind every answer were lingering questions about what comes next this offseason.

“We’ve got a good team,” said Bickerstaff, shifting around a pointed question about Mitchell’s status. “We’ve got good individual players. We’ve got high-character players that are concerned about winning. Any time you have that, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity. I would love to see what we look like when we’re whole for an entire season, what pressure we can put on the league from that standpoint, but we’ve got a good basketball team of guys who want to win and guys who want to get better.”

Two years ago, the Cavaliers had no ceiling. Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen were first-time All-Stars. A rookie Evan Mobley looked like a young Kevin Garnett. All of them were under 25 years old. Together, they formed the foundation of a 44-win team that narrowly missed the playoffs, largely due to injuries.

The sky was the limit, and Cleveland’s front office reached for it immediately, outbidding the New York Knicks by trading Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton and the rights to six first-round draft picks for Mitchell. That deal has yielded one playoff series victory and too much redundancy on the roster over two years.

Whether or not Mitchell requests a trade from the Cavaliers this summer, there is real doubt he re-signs in Cleveland when his $37.1 million player option comes due in 2025. The time to recoup some of what the Cavaliers spent on Mitchell is this summer, when any number of teams will come calling for his services.

“I trust Koby [Altman] and the front office that they’ll make the right decisions to improve this team,” said Bickerstaff, “because that’s what they’ve always done. They’re a big part of why this team improves.”

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 22: Donovan Mitchell #45 listens to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter of game two of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Orlando Magic at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on April 22, 2024 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Magic 96-86. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
What does the future hold for Donovan Mitchell and J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland? (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

What even are these Cavs without Mitchell? That largely depends on the development of Garland and Mobley. Without Mitchell or Allen available in the final two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Garland and Mobley lost consecutive games — and the series — to the top-seeded Celtics, looking very much like that same 44-win team from two seasons ago, only this time on the precipice of dissolution.

There is no doubt that Mitchell has stunted the development of Garland, as Allen has done to Mobley.

Garland averaged 25.5 points (on 60% true shooting) per 36 minutes when Mitchell was off the court in the playoffs, per PBP Stats. He turned into a bit player — and an inefficient one at that — when Mitchell was on the court, averaging 12.6 points (on 50% true shooting) per 36 minutes, according to PBP Stats.

Part of that is natural. Garland gets more opportunities when Mitchell is on the bench. But you want a max-salaried 24-year-old point guard to be more than an afterthought when your team is at full strength.

Mobley and Allen present a similar conundrum. The Cavaliers were better when one of them was on the court than they were when both played together. We have seen them forge a stout defense with double bigs, but it is practically impossible in this era to construct a potent offense with a pair of paint-cloggers.

“As I got more and more reps, I grew real comfortable with it,” Mobley, who scored a playoff career-high 33 points in Wednesday’s Game 5 loss, said of the starting center role previously reserved for Allen.

“[Mobley] is a starter, no matter what position you want to put him at,” added Bickerstaff. “I’m not going to get into the full-time starting center. We have Jarrett Allen. We love him, what he does for this team and the combination of those two guys. Evan just continued to show he’s a heck of a basketball player.”

If the Cavaliers believe Mitchell is preparing to leave and Allen has less upside in the frontcourt — two decent bets — they have to move both in the offseason. The Cavs need look no further than the locker room across the hall in TD Garden for guidance on how to reconstruct a roster around two rising stars.

Tatum and Brown were raised by more established stars. Gordon Hayward ultimately became a roadblock to the fully realized version of both wings. The Celtics cycled through Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker before handing the keys to their homegrown duo, and once Tatum and Brown were ready, the complementary play of Derrick White was better suited as their point guard. Al Horford left and came back, returning with the understanding that the team was no longer his to lead. Boston even dealt fan favorite Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porziņģis, adding one more dimension it sorely lacked.

That is when the Celtics went all in, acquiring Jrue Holiday as the final piece to a puzzle that produced 64 regular-season wins and a cakewalk to the conference finals. It was a process seven years in the making.

The Cavaliers are now three seasons into their project — with more questions than answers.

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The biggest question is whether Garland and Mobley can reach the heights of Tatum and Brown. They will be paid like they can. Garland just finished the first of a five-year, $197 million contract. Mobley is eligible for an extension this summer, and he will almost certainly get the maximum, too. Stunted by Mitchell and Allen, Garland and Mobley have not shown the growth at their ages that we saw from Tatum and Brown.

Count veteran forward Marcus Morris, who also played two seasons with Tatum, among those in the Cavs’ organization who believe in the 22-year-old Mobley’s ability to make a similar leap to superstardom.

“It’s crazy that the big fella reminds me of him a lot, just seeing him grow,” said Morris. “I’ve been a big fan of Ev for the few years he’s been in the league, and I think that he has a really good chance to make that same leap I saw Tatum make. It’s times like this, being able to perform with these types of lights, it allows you to grow in the offseason. Coming into next year, I think this guy right here is going to be a problem.”

The same may not be true for Garland, who scored 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting in the elimination game. That would leave the Cavaliers desperate to retain Mitchell this summer, when he is eligible for a four-year extension worth roughly $200 million. If they succeed, that could spell Garland’s end in Cleveland.

The Cavs have to nail any deal involving Mitchell or Garland. Players of their caliber rarely return equal value, but Cleveland can target complementary talent and restock its draft stash, maintaining flexibility. Would Brooklyn part with Mikal Bridges? Maybe not, since the Bridges-less Nets are not so attractive to Mitchell, but that is the type of player whose skill-set better complements Cleveland’s remaining stars.

Likewise, the San Antonio Spurs would almost certainly make a bid for Garland, and they have the sort of secondary playmakers (Devin Vassell?) — plus a handful of draft picks — to make a sensical deal for both teams. Then again, small markets are hesitant to part with talented young players who are signed for the foreseeable future. Given the uncertainty around Mitchell’s desire to stay longterm — even if he were to accept a contract extension — it may be unreasonable for Cleveland to give up on a homegrown star.

Allen holds value, too, but everything still hinges on the potential of Mobley. Right now, he and Garland form the core of a good team that presented little more than a cursory challenge to the East’s favorites.

What even are these Cavaliers without Mitchell? Hopefully, we did not just find out.

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