In the absence of Donovan Mitchell, what are the Cavaliers? Cleveland has more queries than it does responses.

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After his Cleveland Cavaliers were defeated 113-98 in a thrilling Game 5 at TD Garden, an injured Donovan Mitchell lingered in the hallways, doting on each of his teammates as they left the arena and extending his congratulations to rivals Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as he left.

Though The Athletic published its postmortem on the Cavs’ season, complete with speculation about Mitchell’s wayward status and the future of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who in the aftermath of this series called this “a difficult year for us — for a bunch of different reasons,” it was impossible to determine whether this was the five-time All-Star guard’s farewell to the team he has known for the past two seasons.

Due to a left calf strain, Mitchell had to play the last two games of the series in street clothes and was not available to the media. Bickerstaff responded by saying, “I’ll keep showing up until they tell me not to.”

Although Cleveland presented their elimination from the Eastern Conference semifinals as a positive development following their heartbreaking first-round defeat the previous season, there were still unanswered doubts regarding what will happen this offseason.

“We have a strong team,” Bickerstaff remarked in response to a sharp inquiry regarding Mitchell’s condition. “We have talented players on their own. We have guys with good morals that care about winning. You’re going to give yourself a chance whenever you have it. Although we have a strong basketball team with players who want to win and improve, I would want to see what we look like when we’re all together for the entire season and what kind of pressure we can put on the league from that perspective.”

The Cavaliers had no ceiling two years ago. Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland became All-Stars for the first time. When Evan Mobley was a rookie, he resembled a younger Kevin Garnett. They were all younger than twenty-five. Together, they built a 44-win squad that, mostly because of injury, just missed the postseason.

The possibilities were endless, and Cleveland’s front management seized the opportunity right away, outbidding the New York Knicks and exchanging Mitchell for Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, and the rights to six first-round lottery selections. Over the course of two years, that agreement has produced one postseason series win and an excessive amount of roster redundancy.

It’s quite unlikely that Mitchell would re-sign with the Cavaliers when his $37.1 million player option expires in 2025, regardless of whether he asks for a trade this summer. This summer, when a lot of clubs will be vying for Mitchell’s services, is the perfect moment to make up some of the money the Cavaliers spent on him.

Bickerstaff stated, “I believe Koby [Altman] and the front office will make the right decisions to improve this team because that’s what they’ve always done.” They play a significant role in this team’s improvement.”

Without Mitchell, what exactly are these Cavaliers? That is mostly dependent on how Garland and Mobley go. Garland and Mobley lost both games and the series to the top-seeded Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals without Mitchell or Allen available. They resembled the same 44-win club from two seasons previous, but this time they were on the verge of collapse.

Undoubtedly, Mitchell has impeded Garland’s growth, just as Allen has done with Mobley.

When Mitchell was not on the court during the playoffs, Garland averaged 25.5 points (on 60% true shooting) per 36 minutes, according to PBP Stats. When Mitchell was on the court, he became a bit player, and an ineffective one at that, scoring 12.6 points (on 50% true shooting) on average per 36 minutes, according to PBP Stats.

That is natural in part. With Mitchell on the bench, Garland has more opportunities. When your team is playing at its best, though, you want a 24-year-old point guard who earns the maximum salary to be more than just a backup.

A comparable dilemma is presented by Mobley and Allen. When one of them was on the court, the Cavaliers performed better than when they were both on the floor. They have shown us that they can create a strong defense with two big men, but with two paint-cloggers, it is nearly hard to put together a strong attack in this day and age.

Regarding the starting center position that Allen had previously held, Mobley, who recorded a playoff career-high 33 points in Wednesday’s Game 5 loss, stated, “As I got more and more reps, I grew real comfortable with it.”

Bickerstaff continued, “[Mobley] is a starter, no matter what position you want to put him at.” “I will not become the starting center on a full-time basis. Jarrett Allen is here. We adore him, his contributions to this club, and the dynamic between those two guys. Evan simply kept demonstrating what an incredible basketball player he is.”

The Cavaliers must trade both players in the offseason if they think Mitchell is ready to go and Allen has less upside in the frontcourt — two wise investments. For ideas on how to put together a roster around two young players, the Cavaliers only need to head to the locker room across the street in TD Garden.

Stars with greater experience elevated Tatum and Brown. In the end, Gordon Hayward proved to be a barrier to the completion of both wings. Before giving Tatum and Brown the keys, the Celtics went through Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker. Once Tatum and Brown were ready, Derrick White’s complimentary play was more fitting for their point guard position. Al Horford went and returned, knowing that he was no longer going to be the team’s leader. Boston even acquired Marcus Smart, a fan favorite, in exchange for Kristaps PorziņĢis, giving it a much-needed extra dimension.

At that point, the Celtics made a big play, acquiring Jrue Holiday as the deciding piece in a puzzle that led to 64 wins in the regular season and an easy trip to the conference finals. It took seven years to complete the process.

After three seasons, the Cavaliers still have more questions than answers about their project.

Whether Garland and Mobley can achieve the same success as Tatum and Brown is the main unanswered question. We’ll pay them what they can afford. Garland recently concluded the first of a $197 million, five-year contract. This summer, Mobley is eligible for an extension and is likely to receive the maximum amount granted to him. Garland and Mobley, who were stunted by Mitchell and Allen, have not grown as much as Tatum and Brown did at their ages.

One experienced forward in the Cavaliers’ organization who thinks Mobley, 22, may have a similar meteoric rise to success is Marcus Morris, who spent two seasons playing with Tatum.

“It’s crazy that the big fella reminds me of him a lot, just seeing him grow,” Morris said. “For the short years that he’s been in the league, I’ve been a huge admirer of Ev, and I believe he has a really strong chance to make the same breakthrough that I saw Tatum make. Being able to perform under these kinds of lights during times like this helps you develop throughout the off-season. I believe this kid is going to be an issue heading into next year.”

Garland, who scored 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting in the elimination game, might not share this opinion. In light of this, the Cavaliers will be desperate to hang onto Mitchell come summer, when he is qualified for a $200 million, four-year contract extension. Should they be successful, it might mean the end for Garland in Cleveland.

Any trade involving Mitchell or Garland needs to be flawless for the Cavs. Although players of their quality seldom yield comparable returns, Cleveland can continue to be flexible by focusing on complementing talent and replenishing its draft reserve. Would Mikal Bridges leave Brooklyn? Perhaps not, given that Mitchell is less drawn to the Nets without Bridges, but that kind of player’s skill set fits in better with Cleveland’s core players.

Similar to how the San Antonio Spurs would almost surely put in an offer for Garland, they have the kind of backup players (Devin Vassell, perhaps?) and a few draft selections to create a transaction that makes sense for both parties. However, tiny markets are reluctant to let go of young, skilled players who have long-term contracts. Even if Mitchell were to sign a contract extension, it’s unclear if he wants to stick around for the long run, thus Cleveland might be foolish to give up on a homegrown talent.

Although Allen is valuable as well, Mobley’s potential still has the final say in everything. He and Garland currently make up the basis of a solid club that only offered the East’s front-runners a token challenge.

Without Mitchell, what exactly are these Cavaliers? Hopefully, it wasn’t only that we learned.

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