Jeff Phelps: Who Really Won Trades of Rudy Gobert, Dejounte Murray, Donovan Mitchell?

It was October of 1989. The Dallas Cowboys were in their first season under new head coach Jimmy Johnson, and they weren’t good. They finished the season with a record of 1-15.Donovan Mitchell
But four games into that ’89 season, Johnson had a brainstorm — supposedly while jogging with members of his coaching staff. The Cowboys needed a blockbuster trade, and that meant trading running back Herschel Walker. The Cowboys’ best player went to the Minnesota Vikings in a deal that initially involved 18 players and draft picks. The Cowboys kept dealing the Walker proceeds from there, turning the deal into the main building block of their 3-time Super Bowl winning teams of the 1990’s. The trade was the subject of the ESPN 30 for 30 film, “The Great Train Robbery.” Enough said.
The NBA has never been bashful in the big trade department. But this summer, three trades were made that had a bit of a “Herschel Walker” feel to them — one team trading away a top player to jumpstart a rebuild, with the other team hoping that mortgaging big-time future assets for one key player opens up the window of championship contention. Interestingly, the three teams that gave up big assets for that one key player — Atlanta, Minnesota and Cleveland — were in the same boat last season. All won between 43 and 46 games and had to deal with the play-in tournament.  
On the surface, it’s easy to make the argument that the Hawks, Timberwolves and Cavaliers all gave up way too much in their deals for Dejounte Murray, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. But as opposed to the NFL, where teams have 22 starters, and 55 players on game day, the NBA game is based on chemistry and fit. Talent alone doesn’t always get it done.
Even if a team extremely overpays for a player- as perhaps the Hawks, Timberwolves and Cavaliers all did – but ends up with a unit that plays better together and wins more games, mission accomplished, right? But if the blockbuster deal doesn’t turn that team into an immediate playoff contender, and eventually a championship contender, and then that team has to cough up first round draft choices years down the road while trying to rebuild???Well, at that point, it’ll be some other General Manager’s problem, won’t it.
The Minnesota Vikings made the playoffs with Herschel Walker in 1989, but lost in the first round. They went 6-10 and 8-8 in the next two seasons, and Walker was off to Philadelphia in free agency. The blockbuster didn’t work for the Vikings. Will it work for this summer’s three gutsy NBA teams?

Dejounte Murray to Atlanta

  • Atlanta Hawks receive Dejounte Murray and Jock Landale
  • San Antonio Spurs receive Danilo Gallinari and first round picks in 2023 (from Charlotte), 2025, 2027, and a pick swap in 2026

This was the first of the summer’s big deals. It puts Murray next to Trae Young in the backcourt, and the Hawks may now have the most dynamic young combination in the NBA. They become the first teammate combo in NBA history to have each averaged 20 points and 8 assists per game in the previous season — that’s according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And, Murray is 6’4” — that’s a nice fit next to the 6’1” Young.

Murray is under contract for just the next two seasons, so the Hawks have to get that taken care of. Imagine Murray leaving town before two of the first rounders and the pick swap the Hawks sent to San Antonio come into play in 2025. Not good. But Murray seems like he’ll be a great fit with the Hawks. And as the first of the blockbuster trades of the summer, the price tag for Murray wasn’t as high as what was coming.

Rudy Gobert to Minnesota

I’d be a little nervous about this one if I were a Minnesota fan, especially those who are still in therapy from the Herschel Walker deal. What we’re looking at here is five first round draft picks (Kessler was Minnesta’s 2022 first rounder) and four players/assets for arguably the top rebounding and defensive center in the league.  

Gobert is a three-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player-of-the-Year. But he also just turned 30 and has never been to a conference finals. You have to love the idea of Gobert playing with Karl-Anthony Towns, who always seemed to prefer being more Julius Erving and less Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Towns is under contract for the next five seasons, with a player option for a sixth, and Gobert is locked into the Timberwolves for the next three seasons, with a player option for a fourth — so you have to like that.

This deal gets back to the “chemistry and fit” that we mentioned earlier. If the deal works for the Timberwolves and makes them a legit contender in the Western Conference, outstanding! But it sure feels like the Wolves gave up too much for a veteran center embarking on his 30s whose strengths are defense and rebounding.

Chemistry and fit. Chemistry and fit. Chemistry and fit. Fingers in Minnesota are crossed in hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland

Oh, that Danny Ainge! If it worked in Boston, it’ll work in Utah — or so Danny’s actions say. A huge haul from Minnesota for Gobert, and another huge haul from Cleveland for Mitchell.  

Donovan Mitchell gives the Cavaliers a guy who is just about a lock to average somewhere around 25 points a game. The Cavs needed a guy to put the ball in the basket down the stretch last season — it’s a key reason why they slid right out of the playoffs and had to settle for two losses in the play-in tournament. Mitchell is that desperately needed guy. No question — the Cavs should be an improved team with Mitchell. Should be. However…

The Cavs didn’t just hand three first round picks and some players to Utah. The Cavs traded three players who were going to be key rotation players in Cleveland. Mitchell is what Collin Sexton wants to be when he grows up. But like Mitchell, Sexton is a commando of an NBA player, and if blessed with good health, will put the ball in the basket for many years to come. Sexton was hurt last season and played in only 11 games. Compare his numbers in his last healthy season, 2020-21, to Mitchell’s that same season, and you might be slightly surprised:
2020-21 STATS
  • Mitchell — 26.4 pts, 5.2 ast, .438 FG%, .386 3PT%, .845 FT%
  • Sexton — 24.3 pts, 4.4 ast, .475 FG%, .371 3PT%, .815 FT%

Closer than you thought, right? It was the best season of Sexton’s career, but who’s to say he can’t build on it. Now clearly, Mitchell has been a better NBA player than Sexton,– a much more consistent producer. That’s unlikely to change. But these guys weren’t traded even-up.

The Cavs also gave up a good pro in Markkanen, who at 7-feet tall and playing small forward, gave the Cavs the lineup that was a really tough matchup for most teams in the league last season, the lineup that became their identity. You could make the argument that the big lineup was the key reason for the Cavs’ success last season.  

The Cavs needed shooting from a wing player, so they drafted Ochai Agbaji with the 14th pick in the draft. He goes to Utah. So do three future unprotected first round picks that start in 2025, after Mitchell’s current contract expires. Gulp. He’s under contract for three more seasons, through 2024-25, with a player option for 2025-26. 

Two other things. Though Mitchell is a really, really good NBA player, the Cavs are back to having two 6’1 starting guards as Mitchell teams up with Darius Garland. That’s not optimal — as it didn’t work beautifully when it was Garland and Sexton. And, without Markkanen, the Cavs identity changes. No more big lineup, though Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are still a nice duo.

No Markkanen also means the Cavs are once again in search of a small forward in a league that seems to require a top-notch small forward in order to win big. Caris LeVert could be the answer at that spot. Don’t think it’ll be Isaac Okoro, unless he returns this season with a better all-around offensive game.

It’s a different NBA. Bold trades are becoming even more common, first round draft picks are flying all over the place. But no question about it, these are big trades, and big gambles for Atlanta, Minnesota and Cleveland. All three teams gave up a ton (especially in future assets) to get their guy — in fact, the deals seem to have set a new trade market price tag for star players. Now the deals need to payoff, and soon, for all three.

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    In Fact, I couldn’t have said it better reference the feeling of reservation of losing BOTH Markkanen AND Agbaji. Still trying to feel excitement about it, but it’s only coming slowly. Mobley’s second season is “seemingly” the only saving grace to excite right now. What’s more, lately, I’ve seem to be hearing so, so much more on D. Mitchell, while I hear so little of Darius right now ? ? Like because many are seeming to forget the exciting young team we cheered for last year, & the “new guy” is all the buzzword now. That can’t go over too well internally for long. Come on, we had a pretty good young bunch & let’s hope that the TEAM chemistry continues & somebody steps up big time at the 3 spot !
    Good analogy & perspective Jeff.

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