Cavaliers' Donovan Mitchell trade complicates Bulls' playoff plans

·3 min read

Why Cavs' Mitchell trade complicates Bulls playoff plans originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

There are so many local launching pads from where to analyze Cleveland’s out-of-nowhere acquisition of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Lauri Markkanen has now been traded twice in almost exactly one year. He moved from the Cavaliers to the Jazz on Thursday — one year and three days after the Chicago Bulls executed a three-team, sign-and-trade transaction to find the then-disgruntled forward a new home in exchange for a protected first-round pick and Derrick Jones Jr. from the Portland Trail Blazers.

Jazz CEO Danny Ainge, who works with Northwestern graduate and former agent to Ömer Aşık Justin Zanik in Zanik’s role as general manager, is serious about this rebuild thing. Between Ainge signing off on trading Mitchell on top of sending Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Jazz now has acquired 13 unprotected or lightly-protected picks through 2029 — as well as some promising young pieces like Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler.

But the best place may be here: The Bulls better hope this continuity theme pays off. Because the Eastern Conference, which used to sometimes be derisively called the Leastern Conference, is in line for a (bad pun) nickname tweak.

Welcome to the Beast-ern Conference.

Mitchell instantly and significantly upgrades an already formidable and intriguing Cavaliers team that finished 44-38 last season and in ninth place, losing a close play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks. That record stood a mere two games behind the sixth-place Bulls.

And while losing a starter in Markkanan and a former 20-points-per-game scorer in Sexton is notable, the Cavaliers already had started handing the keys to the car to Darius Garland when Sexton played just 11 games last season due to a torn meniscus.

Garland averaged 21.7 points and 8.6 assists in 68 games last season, earning his first All-Star berth. In fact, in Garland and Jarrett Allen, the Cavaliers already employed as many All-Stars as the Bulls, who have Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

And that’s before adding Mitchell, a three-time All-Star with three years remaining on his contract. Or factoring in the potential All-Star trajectory of Evan Mobley, a first-team All-Rookie selection last season.

Mitchell turns 26 on Sept. 7. He has averaged 23.9 points on 36.1 percent 3-point shooting on high volume of 7.7 attempts per game over his first five NBA seasons. He owns 39 games of playoff experience, although the Jazz only advanced to the second round twice and never past that.

Still, his arrival instantly pushes the Cavaliers into a legitimate conversation for a top-six seed in the stacked conference.

Most of the trade chatter surrounding Mitchell centered on the New York Knicks, who instead extended potential trade chip RJ Barrett this week. Mitchell joining the Cavaliers’ core feels more ominous from a Bulls perspective.

The Bulls are banking on improved health and core continuity to join the ranks of conference contenders like the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. That it takes listing five teams before mentioning teams like the intriguing Cavaliers, massively upgraded Hawks, or the always dangerous Toronto Raptors makes it clear how much the Bulls are banking on to go right.

Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso must stay healthy. LaVine must do so as well — and take another jump after signing his maximum contract. DeRozan must keep providing clutch scoring. Nikola Vučević needs to shoot better from 3-point range. Patrick Williams needs to establish consistency.

Of course, the Cavaliers merely improved on paper on Thursday. Like all teams, including the Bulls, they need plenty to go right on the court for them to take a jump. But it’s pretty clear the Bulls will face strong competition on a nightly basis if they want to improve on last season’s return to relevance.

You don’t need — to steal Mitchell’s nickname — “Spida” senses to see that.

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