Cavaliers in no hurry to move All-Star Donovan Mitchell

Hold off the cavalry. The sky ain’t falling in Cleveland just yet. Last week, the Cavaliers lost All-Star point guard Darius Garland and rising forward Evan Mobley to lengthy injury absences on the same afternoon after a suboptimal start to this season following postseason disappointment last spring. But it's quite easy to tilt your head and see a rosier picture in Northeast Ohio.

The Cavaliers are 15-12, just two games out of the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, which always marked this roster’s realistic place in the playoff hierarchy — behind the Celtics, Bucks and the best version of Joel Embiid’s 76ers.

The facial fracture that will cost Garland four weeks is a brutal loss, but Cavs officials are touting the misfortune as more opportunity for undrafted two-way steal Craig Porter Jr. to earn minutes in J.B. Bickerstaff’s rotation. And Sam Merrill, who spent 2022-23 largely with the franchise’s G League affiliate, the Canton Charge, erupted for a career-high 19 points in Monday’s overtime win over the pesky Houston Rockets. Mobley’s eight-week hiatus due to arthroscopic left knee surgery is even more significant. But two answers — at least offensively— arrived this summer with lavish contracts, as there’s an argument to be made that sharpshooting free-agent acquisitions Max Strus and Georges Niang are best suited at the four spot, rather than plugging the longstanding hole at the three in between Cleveland’s Big Four.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - DECEMBER 18: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers meditates prior to the game against the Houston Rockets at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on December 18, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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)

This is partially why you trade five years of successive draft capital to forge such a quartet together, which the Cavaliers mortgaged for Donovan Mitchell prior to last season. If you lose two alphas, you’re still left with a pair of All-Stars. It’s easy to drop Jarrett Allen from the pantheon of NBA centers, what with the two-way brilliance of Embiid and Nikola Jokić, Domantas Sabonis’ All-NBA orchestration in Sacramento and Rudy Gobert’s resurgence as the game’s greatest rim protector. Yet Allen remains high on that proverbial list, with two years remaining on a five-year, $100 million contract that will draw, and has drawn, plenty of interest from playoff contenders like the New Orleans Pelicans, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

And yet part of the calculus behind paying Utah’s exorbitant price to deal Mitchell was the potential to recoup at least some of the outgoing assets the small-market Cavaliers burned to bring in an All-NBA guard with designs on playing in New York. He’s still just 27 years old and has another guaranteed season left on his contract after this 2023-24 campaign. If the Cavaliers were to put Mitchell on the block tomorrow or in February before the trade deadline or next offseason, there would be a long line of suitors, the Knicks surely among them, willing to compete for his services with competitive offers.

The Cavaliers, though, are not prepared to consider that exit strategy. Cleveland officials have maintained a commitment to this core of four All-Star talents, according to league sources, even with all the incessant chatter among rival executives that Mitchell will inevitably bolt when he can reach the unrestricted market in 2025. Ask any pro personnel scout, and they’ll be happy to pinpoint Mitchell toward one of the two teams that call New York home. It has not bothered the Cavaliers’ resolve to this point.

All that noise has naturally brought questions about Bickerstaff’s hold on his head-coaching post, particularly after a 4-6 start, with Cleveland’s playoff shortcomings against the Knicks still fresh in the rearview. If change were to ever come within the Cavaliers, talent is rarely the first major domino to fall. It’s far simpler, and far less existential, to swap out a play-caller than part with an MVP candidate like Mitchell, so goes this league’s conventional wisdom. And yet just like Cleveland’s reluctance on moving Mitchell, there doesn’t seem to be an internal hurry to address any change on the Cavs’ bench either, sources said. If anything, as Marc Stein noted on his Substack, the injuries to Garland and Mobley may actually ease any tangible pressure that was falling onto Bickerstaff’s shoulders.

There’s also the question of how much actual improvement can truly come from an in-house replacement such as assistant Luke Walton, the only staff member with previous head-coaching experience in the past decade, or associate head coach Greg Buckner. Quin Snyder’s ongoing effort, for example, to turn Atlanta into something more than its past iterations has shown how adding a highly regarded external candidate midseason doesn’t automatically correct a team’s course. League personnel continue to project the Hawks as one of the teams to watch for pre-deadline trade activity during this first full year with Snyder at the helm.

Cleveland has a far smaller range of outcomes. This franchise doesn’t bill as anything other than another playoff contender looking for additions to its foundation at this juncture of the season. With seven weeks remaining before the league’s Feb. 8 buzzer, the only true trade development about the Cavaliers is the team’s attempts to find a partner that will take Ricky Rubio’s contract, league sources told Yahoo Sports, so that next front office can work on a buyout of the veteran point guard’s two seasons and $12.5 million remaining on the three-year contract Rubio signed to return to the Cavaliers last July. Rubio announced this August he was pausing his career to focus on his mental health. But his salary slot is just too valuable for a team with Cleveland’s ceiling and aspirations to punt for no contribution, regardless of what Rubio’s veteran know-how brought to Cleveland’s locker room in recent seasons.

Seven weeks is quite a sample size to play with, especially given the possibility Mobley does not return to the court until after the deadline sounds. If Cleveland spirals without two of its four linchpins in the lineup, then perhaps the Cavaliers will be holding different internal meetings about the long-term landscape of this franchise. Yet Koby Altman’s front office appears to have the sturdy backing of ownership that previous lead executives never seemed to be afforded. The Cavs have built a bona fide playoff unit in the aftermath of LeBron James parting for nothing in 2018 free agency, with the goal of wading deeper into the postseason.

That remains the objective, with Mitchell in tow, until proven otherwise.