Cleveland • Donovan Mitchell’s allegiance was made clear by the Louisville jersey he wore on the sideline during the Browns’ 28-3 loss to the Ravens on Sunday. When he was playfully asked Monday if he was responsible for Lamar Jackson’s four touchdowns in Baltimore’s win, Mitchell laughed.
“You’re trying to get me killed,” he said.
Cleveland fans can be a sensitive bunch. With the number of stars who have fled town at the first opportunity, it’s easy to see why. So when stories about Mitchell’s infatuation with one day playing in New York litter the NBA offseason, coupled with the fact Mitchell was photographed all summer in Mets gear (his father works for the team) and then again Sunday in the enemy’s jersey (Jackson and Mitchell were at Louisville together), well, it’s going to bring about a dose of hostility.
“I know they all hate me,” Mitchell said Monday during Cavs media day. “But it’s all good, it’s all love.”
It’s the jersey Mitchell will be wearing next season that is most important to Cleveland fans. His current contract says it will be a Cavs jersey. Reality may dictate otherwise.
This is a huge year for the Cavs in terms of Mitchell’s future here. They control him for two more seasons before a player option year. It really means the Cavs control him for one more season before there are hard decisions to make.
If Mitchell won’t sign an extension next summer, the Cavs will be forced to choose between playing out his final season of team control and risk losing him for nothing or dealing him with a year left in an effort to recoup a fraction of the war chest of trade assets they sent to Utah last year to acquire him.
The Milwaukee Bucks are facing a similar squeeze with Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose contract is on the same track as Mitchell. The Bucks, who have been scrambling for years to pull off major deals to keep Antetokounmpo content in small-market Milwaukee, responded yet again by swinging the biggest trade of the offseason in acquiring Damian Lillard.
The Cavs, similarly, spent the summer trying to fix their roster with far fewer assets. Max Strus and Georges Niang should fill the massive shooting hole that dragged down this roster during the playoff loss to the Knicks in five games.
No one will argue that Antetokounmpo is in a tier above Mitchell. Nevertheless, the fact they are on parallel contracts is fascinating because there are only so many franchises equipped to pull off these blockbuster trades. Only so many teams consider themselves strong enough contenders to stomach trading away the necessary trade capital, and that number is already dwindling by the number of teams that have already made such deals (Phoenix, Cleveland, Philadelphia, etc. …)
This isn’t a pool of 29 other trade partners the Cavs or Bucks would be swimming in, but instead maybe only five or six teams that are a logistical match. In other words, it’s better to be first than last when constructing such deals.
Technically, Mitchell could sign a mammoth extension with the Cavs right now, but he already made clear Monday that isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. Financially, it would be foolish on his part.
League rules dictate a player can only be under team control for a total of five years. Since the Cavs already have him for the next two, the most Mitchell could sign for right now is three years and about $152 million.
By waiting until next summer, Mitchell could sign a four-year deal worth about $210 million based on The Athletic’s Danny Leroux’s cap projections. It’s a difference of about $60 million just by waiting an extra year. Of course he’s going to wait.
As NBA stars continue to force their way into and out of markets across the league every year at an increasingly alarming rate, Mitchell realizes this won’t be the last time the topic of his contract arises. It’s part of the business.
It’s also important to remember that Mitchell never asked to come to Cleveland. He was sent here. He has been a perfect citizen during his time here, saying all the right things, being a model teammate and even getting in on the recruiting pitch over the summer for Strus and Niang. It’s truly commendable on his part.
Until next summer, the Cavs can only control what they can control — roster construction and winning. A franchise with one playoff win in five years since LeBron James left needs to do a lot better than that this year. The pressure is on everyone. Mitchell’s future is dependent on it.
— This article originally appeared in The Athletic.