Evan’s Take: Donovan Mitchell makes Cleveland a Top 5 Team in the East

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The Cleveland Cavaliers was a team that was years off from having a chance to contend in a deep Eastern Conference with teams like the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks. Ever since the departure of Lebron James, the Cavaliers have fought hard to assemble pieces to have a chance at their second franchise championship. While they may still be a little far-off, one trade helped Cleveland take a huge step forward. 

Specifically, one man has made the Cavaliers climb the standings in a sudden turn of events. That’s Donovan Mitchell, the former Utah Jazz multi-time all-star shooting guard that came to Cleveland to team up with a deep roster of talented and young stars. 

Does Mitchell alone make Cleveland a top 5 team in the Eastern Conference? I’d argue that there’s no barring any sweeping changes to the current landscape of the East. 

To at least be the fifth seed in the East, I’d argue that there are four teams to beat. Those teams are the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks. But what about the other four teams in the Eastern Conference? 

Miami, with its core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro make it incredibly difficult for the Cavaliers to not only guard, but also score on. Butler remains a defensive force and should cause problems for Mitchell, while Adebayo counters an emerging young talent in Evan Mobley. Even with Darius Garland, Miami’s depth on the bench with Victor Oladipo, Max Strus and more give the Heat the edge if the two were to meet in a seven-game series. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes Milwaukee a dangerous lineup and other than Mobley and potentially Jarrett Allen, he’s a huge mismatch for Cleveland. With Jrue Holiday’s defensive abilities and Khris Middleton as a huge offensive weapon for Milwaukee, the Bucks can play the same lineup and still be out of reach of an improved Cavaliers lineup. 

The Boston Celtics, with their acquisition of Malcom Brogdon, brings in an improved offense that should allow them to remain competitive in their quest to return to the Finals and bring home a ring. Combine that with the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that only get better each year and Boston should certainly have the upper hand against Cleveland’s lineup. 

The Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and James Harden may look better on paper, but there’s certainly potential for the Cavaliers to eclipse the 76ers in the standings if potential injuries were to come to Embiid, a problem that the MVP candidate has struggled with throughout his career. Harden, even in a down year, is always one of the toughest players in the league to guard and provides problems for Cleveland’s own guard defense. With the level of talent that Philadelphia brings in, and the acquisition of Montrezl Harrell to anchor a strong frontcourt, Philadelphia may be out of reach in 2023. 

Examining the rest of the Eastern Conference, it becomes clear that Cleveland has the pieces on their roster to beat any of these teams, even a star-studded Brooklyn Nets team that brings back Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving after the two were involved in trade rumors throughout the offseason.  

For Brooklyn, head coach Steve Nash has not been able to unlock the full capabilities of an offense that has seen Durant do most of the work. Irving, with his own missed time from the team due to injury, may not be someone that the Nets can count on. Ben Simmons is a huge question mark as he looks to appear in NBA action. 

That’s all without mentioning team chemistry issues. With how much tension Brooklyn may be facing currently, it makes it harder to argue for them over a Cavaliers team that is only going to get better with Mobley going into his sophomore season and Mitchell being added to an entertaining offense.  

Moving forward to the Hawks, who brought in an exciting guard in Dejounte Murray, the main key for Cleveland is outperforming Atlanta’s guard duo. While Trae Young may be an inefficient defender, Murray comes to Atlanta as an elite defender and can definitely create problems for the opposition. However, even with Young’s great offensive firepower and Murray’s defense, it may not be better than a team that is adding Mitchell to an offense that features Garland and Mobley. 

Doesn’t Cleveland have its own backcourt defensive issues? That’s true, but it’s certainly nowhere near as much of an issue as Atlanta with Young struggling to guard bigger defenders. While Atlanta causes a huge threat to Cleveland’s chances, I’m siding with Cleveland due to their fewer problems on the defensive end. 

Chicago, who looked like they may finish top three in the Eastern Conference during the first half of the 2022 season, fell apart late in the year and consistency will need to be a strong focus heading into the 2023 NBA season. The Bulls have struggled to stay on the court, especially starting point guard Lonzo Ball.  

While the Bulls and Cavaliers were neck-and-neck on both offense and defense, the addition of Mitchell pushes Cleveland ahead offensively. If Chicago can stay on the court and stay healthy, they could certainly be ahead of Cleveland. However, if their injury history is similar to last year, they may not have a chance. 

Finally, Toronto comes into next season with no major transactions unlike teams like Atlanta and Cleveland. The team is banking on further progression with Scottie Barnes and further contributions from Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. With plenty of teams getting even better over the offseason, Toronto now is faced with a tough challenge of competing against a deep Eastern Conference. Barnes and Siakam are great. Anunoby and Fred VanVleet give Toronto even more depth. Is that good enough to overtake Cleveland and make them the 5th seed? 

In the NBA anything is possible. However, it may be the depth of the roster that makes it harder to argue for Toronto, especially when teams like Cleveland and Chicago have both prided themselves on having excellent bench players. Barnes and Siakam won’t be able to play the entire game and the Cavaliers, with their own lineup, certainly won’t have that problem going forward.  

If there is one thing for certain about the state of the Eastern Conference, it’s going to be entertaining. With the level of talent across the conference’s 15 teams, the competitive nature of each team will be on full display. If there’s one team you need to watch next season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are certainly a top pick. 

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