The pros and cons of a Donovan Mitchell trade

The Houston Rockets remain interested in trading for Donovan Mitchell. These are the pros and cons of swinging a deal for the All-NBA guard.
Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game One
Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game One / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages

Kelly Iko of The Athletic has reported that the Houston Rockets have maintained trade interest in Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell and will continue to monitor the situation. With how assertive the Rockets have been over their desire to improve quickly, adding a star-level talent like Donovan Mitchell doesn’t seem far-fetched. However, the situation in Cleveland is a crucial detail to understand when trading for Mitchell.

What is the Donovan Mitchell situation in Cleveland?

Donovan Mitchell’s perceived availability through trade boils down to his player option for the 2025-26 season. At $37.1 million, Mitchell will almost certainly turn down his option and hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2025, which makes him functionally in the final year of his deal. Adding fuel to the fire, he hasn’t strongly hinted he will extend, which is usually a sign that an extension is unlikely. 

As long as Mitchell is perceived to be in the final year of his deal, he’ll be the subject of trade discussions. The Cavaliers gave up Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027, 2029), and two pick-swaps (2026 and 2028) to acquire him before the start of the 2022-23 season. And it would be tremendously bad business to risk losing him for nothing. 

Another complicating factor is that because Mitchell has one year left on his deal, any team trading for him would have to have assurances they could extend him. This gives Mitchell tremendous power over where he lands and trade negotiations should be thought of as pre-agency, where Mitchell and a team come to terms before a trade is struck. 

There will be no shortage of suitors should Mitchell become available. He’s an All-NBA caliber guard in the prime of his career who can swing a team’s title odds. The Rockets would be foolish not to gauge his obtainability, but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a downside to bringing him to Houston. Each decision has pros and cons, and the question is always whether one outweighs the other.  

3 Pros to the Rockets trading for Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell is an All-NBA caliber guard

At the end of the day, talent wins in the NBA. Are fit, continuity, and chemistry important? Absolutely, but they only really matter if you have the requisite talent to win at the highest level. Take the 2023-24 Washington Wizards as an example. Their starting lineup entering the season was Tyus Jones, Jordan Poole, Deni Avdija, Kyle Kuzma, and Daniel Gafford. The combination of a hyper-efficient table-setting point guard, gun-slinging scoring guard, defensive wing with passing chops, power forward with isolation creation, and rim-running and rim-stuffing center was an awesome basketball fit. The only problem was the total talent level stunk. So they stunk.

Unlike the Wizards, Donovan Mitchell is a super talent. Over the past two seasons, he has had an offensive box plus/minus of 5.2, which saw him finish 13th and 11th in the metric. If traditional boxscore stats are more your thing, I have good news. He averaged 27.5 points and 5.2 assists per game over that same span. The single most valuable skill in basketball is offensive creation, and Mitchell is certainly one of the 20 best in the world at it, and probably in the top 15. If you have the fortune of employing Donovan Mitchell, you will win more games. It’s as simple as that. 

The Rockets need backcourt scoring punch

The Rockets were a defense-first team in 2023-24. Their 113.4 defensive rating ranked ninth in the league, while their 114.5 offensive rating ranked 20th. With Alperen Sengun entrenched at center, the Rockets already have excellent offensive production from their frontcourt, but the backcourt is a different story. 

Fred VanVleet was just what the Rockets needed at the point guard position, but his offensive skill set is more complimentary than dynamic. He’s an assist-to-turnover ratio savant who bombs threes with abandon, but his scoring efficiency is merely okay. For the Rockets’ offense to take the next step, they need some dynamism in the backcourt, and Donovan Mitchell provides just that. 

The elephant at mission control has been Jalen Green’s stalled development. His full-season stats of 19.6 points per game on a 49.8 percent effective field goal percentage would look great in 2004, but two decades of rising scoring efficiency make those figures well below acceptable for a playoff team. Even Green’s full-season stats are a bit of a mirage. From February 29th to March 29th, he torched the league for 29.2 points per game on 42.2 percent 3-point shooting over 15 games. While that run was exceptional, it also means he averaged 17.5 points per game on 30.2 percent 3-point shooting in the 67 games he wasn’t cosplaying Donovan Mitchell. 

Simply turning Jalen Green into Donovan Mitchell would, in an instant, drag the Rockets’ offense from the bottom third to well above league average. It’s also worth noting that Green isn’t a defensive stopper, so there shouldn’t be any worry over their defense simultaneously slipping. If the Rockets want to win more in 2024-25, Donovan Mitchell is exactly what the doctor ordered. 

Donovan Mitchell still has productive years left

Mitchell’s age undoubtedly increases his appeal for would-be buyers. He’ll turn 28 in September and is smack-dab in the middle of his prime. While it’s unlikely he’ll get significantly better than he is now, having a top-15 player for three to four seasons is something just about any NBA franchise would sign up for. 

The Rockets with Mitchell probably won’t be ready to compete for a title next season, but by 2025-26, Alperen Sengun and Amen Thompson will be in their age 23 season, Tari Eason will be 24, Jabari Smith Jr. will be 22, and Cam Whitmore will be 21. With Mitchell and Fred VanVleet still in their late prime the young core will just begin to enter theirs and the Rockets could have a three-season window of contention with Mitchell playing a major role. 

The age timelines don’t align perfectly, but that’s a silly detail to get hung up on. Basketball contracts are short and the idea of keeping a core together for a decade in the modern NBA is fan fiction. The question is will Mitchell and Sengun have a bunch of overlapping highly productive seasons together? If you believe the answer is yes, then who cares if they’re six years apart? 

3 cons to the Rockets trading for Donovan Mitchell

Cost to acquire

There is no way around it, trading for Donovan Mitchell will be costly. Will it cost as much as it took Cleveland to pry him from Utah? Probably not, but in the NBA, the years left on a deal are far less important than the talent you’re acquiring. If the Rockets trade for Mitchell, say bye-bye to the remaining Brooklyn Nets pick, a portion of the young core, a beloved veteran, and probably the third overall pick in the 2024 NBA draft. 

There’s also the issue that Houston’s most valuable trade assets might not be what Cleveland values most. Before Donovan Mitchell arrived in Cleveland, the Cavaliers were a 44-win team. With most of that core remaining, the Cavaliers may prefer players who can contribute right away, not young players and draft picks down the line. That small discrepancy might force the Rockets to include even more assets. 

Donovan Mitchell would make the Rockets better from the jump, but their future flexibility would be hamstrung. Which is a problem if Mitchell alone doesn’t make the Rockets a title contender. 

Will Donovan Mitchell be enough?

The problem with going all-in is that if all-in isn’t enough, what do you do? The Cavaliers are an excellent example of this conundrum. They went from a 44-win team to a 51-win team by acquiring Donovan Mitchell, but they were left with a difficult decision. Trade one of their core players for reinforcements or ride their roster as far as it will take them. In Cleveland’s case, that was five second-round playoff games. 

If Mitchell isn’t the final piece of the Rockets’ championship equation, they’re in the exact same position as the Cavaliers are right now. Sure, they could trade from their remaining young core and asset base, but that’s a risky proposition. It’s acted as a given that star players will ask out, but what if the wrong ones are available in your time of need? What if everyone is content to stay with their franchise and collect a max contract that could pay them upwards of $90 million with the new television rights deal on the horizon?

The reality is that title contenders usually have a top-five player, and no one on this hypothetical Rockets team looks likely to reach those heights in the next few seasons. The Celtics and Timberwolves are proving exceptions to that rule, but they’re probably the two deepest teams in the league. And if that’s the Rockets' intended championship blueprint, then they’re better off staying the course and continuing to amass players and picks. 

The fit may not drip

While I lambasted fit earlier in favor of talent, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, fit becomes incredibly important once you have the talent to contend. The difference between champions and good teams is usually not talent, it’s how that talent fits together. 

The Denver Nuggets were a good team built around the talents of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, but they couldn’t become champions until they surrounded them with the right players. Conversely, the Phoenix Suns had incredible high-end talent, but their fit together was tenuous and their supporting cast didn’t fill the right holes. 

Donovan Mitchell’s pure talent will make the Rockets better, but does he fit into their current roster construction in a way where they can realistically become champions? A backcourt of VanVleet and Mitchell would be awfully small, and Mitchell has been at his best when paired with a rim-running center. 

It would surprise no one if Mitchell and Sengun developed excellent chemistry, but it’s also not a given. The Rockets’ current roster is devoid of the shooting to best optimize a Mitchell-Sengun pairing, and it could push some of their young players to the periphery. And even if the fit ends up being excellent, will the talent level actually be enough for it to matter? The Wolves and Celtics don’t have a top-five player, but Jayson Tatum and Anthony Edwards both realistically have that potential. 

The Donovan Mitchell component

The final piece is neither a pro nor a con and has nothing to do with the Houston Rockets. As mentioned earlier, Donovan Mitchell has an enormous say in where he ends up. That doesn’t mean he can lower the cost to acquire him, but it does mean he’ll likely end up in a place where he wants. So, why would Mitchell want to come to Houston?

To be frank, if I were Donovan Mitchell, I would have no interest in joining the Rockets. It has nothing to do with the city or the team, and everything to do with what he just experienced in Cleveland. Mitchell went from a legitimate contender in the Utah Jazz to an up-and-coming team in the Cavaliers. His arrival spurred them on to bigger and better things, but they never got close to winning a title. Why would he want to do that again?

Any team Mitchell gets traded to will extend him through the end of his prime. His next team is likely his last team where he can win a title while still being a highly productive player. Why would he go somewhere where that feels remote? Why would he sign up for another tour as the star veteran dragging young players to the playoffs? The sensible answer is that he wouldn’t. There are plenty of pros for the Rockets acquiring Donovan Mitchell, but there aren’t nearly as many for Mitchell. With how much leverage he’ll have over his final destination, it remains unlikely he’ll look at the Rockets and say yes.