Not A Mistake: Trading Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles
The Durango Herald
To many NBA fans out there, trading Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon was a huge mistake for the Denver Nuggets. Looking at this trade in a vacuum, it’s hard to blame them.
The Denver Nuggets traded away a Rookie of the Year candidate for a 22-year-old stretch four who struggled to find a role on his former team and a 21-year-old rookie, who was only able to play 15 games in the G-League before a knee injury cut his season short. Without any context, it looks like this trade is indefensible; but nothing exists without context, especially in the NBA.
Denver Did Not Need Another Guard
In his rookie season, Mitchell averaged 20.5 points on 43.7 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent shooting from three, while playing the role of the primary scorer of a playoff bound team. You must be thinking that most teams would want a player like this. Unfortunately, the Nuggets were not one of those teams.
Going into the 2017-18 season, the Nuggets had used four of their previous six first round picks on guards, most of whom were drafted to become lead guards in the Nuggets offense.
Of these four guards, Jamal Murray (who is younger than Mitchell) established himself as the lead guard for the team moving forward. Playing alongside him would be the young three-point specialist Gary Harris.
On top of these two, they had two extremely athletic prospects in the inconsistent playmaking point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and the potentially spectacular yet unproven Malik Beasley.
In addition to their young guards, they also had a veteran guard coming off the bench in Will Barton. With a logjam at the guard position, why would Denver add Mitchell to the roster? What role would he play on the team?
The role Mitchell played on the Jazz would have been Murray’s role in Denver. You might be thinking, based on the media buzz surrounding Mitchell and the comparative lack of hype surrounding Murray, that Mitchell must have outplayed Murray in every way. Well, maybe not. Here are the stats:
As you can tell by those stats, both players are very similar. Mitchell scored more points and had a bigger impact on his team, but also had more field goal attempts, a worse True Shooting Percentage, and played more minutes than Murray. Murray also had a better assist ratio and a slightly lower turnover ratio than Mitchell.
This comparison shows that Murray is the more reliable playmaker and more efficient scorer, but Mitchell carried more of the offensive burden for his team. Perhaps if the roles were reversed, Murray would have had a similar impact on his team.
After all, Jamal Murray was named the 2017 Rising Stars Game MVP with his impressive 36 point/11 assist effort.
Trey Lyles And Tyler Lydon Are Better Fits
So, I want to clarify this statement that I am in no way saying that Lyles and Lydon are better players than Mitchell. I am merely saying that they are better fits for the Nuggets roster, and that matters.
The way that the Nuggets’ current roster is constructed, they need a stretch four to further space the floor to allow their guards and Nikola Jokic to operate. Hanging on to Mitchell would not have done that.
At the time of the trade, the Nuggets had no real starting power forward, with duties split between Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, and Danilo Gallinari, whose departure was imminent. During the subsequent free agency, the Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to fill that role, but just having one aging stretch four is not enough for a team that is still rebuilding.
With Lyles, the Nuggets got a young big who filled that glaring hole on their team. In his first season with Denver, he shot 38.1 percent from deep on three attempts per game. On top of his perimeter shooting, he finished the season with a 56.6 Effective Field Goal Percentage on a 21.1 Usage Rate.
Tyler Lydon only played 15 games in the G-League before getting injured, but his 37.7 percent shooting from three in the G-League along with his 40 percent shooting from three in college seem to confirm that he also fills the stretch four role that the Nuggets desperately needed.
If the Nuggets got what they desperately needed in the trade, then it couldn’t have been a total loss.
The Narrative Surrounding Donovan Mitchell is Misleading
I know this is where I will lose a lot of you readers. Before I justify the borderline blasphemous statement I just made, I’d like to clarify that I like Mitchell as a player.
I do believe that Mitchell is a special talent in this league and will be an All-NBA player at some point in his career. All that being said, some of the narratives surrounding him are misleading. Here are the two most relevant misleading narratives about Mitchell:
1. “Donovan Mitchell is the most important player on the Jazz and is the main reason why they made the playoffs.”
Oh man, it’s the classic “I’m too lazy to watch or analyze full games and only watch highlights and read headlines” argument. The best way to refute this argument would be to present a graph showing the relationship (or rather lack thereof) between games where Mitchell had a great performance and games won by the Jazz. Unfortunately, I don’t have a team of analysts to compile that information for me, so I’m going to use a blind resume test to illustrate my point:
Based on the information given above, you can deduce that the most important player to the team would be Player B due to having the highest Player Impact Estimate, playing the second highest minutes per game, and having the second highest net rating. Player A has to be a high impact role player due to the lack of minutes and player impact, while having the highest net rating. Player C, D, and E seem interchangeable in terms of impact, but Player D has the edge in terms net rating and minutes played.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The most important player on the Jazz according to advanced metrics is Gobert. This may come to a huge surprise to you because you forgot that the Jazz are a defensive team, and Gobert is the anchor of that defense. Without his rim protection, the identity the team has built in the last few seasons would be gone.
You may be thinking that Gobert may have the most impact defensively, but you still need offense to be able to make the playoffs, meaning Mitchell is still mostly responsible for leading the team to the playoffs.
Unfortunately, basketball isn’t that simple. Gobert’s impact extends to the offense in the form of picks and screens. Mitchell and Rubio may be the primary offensive facilitators, but since pick and rolls account for the largest shares of their offensive plays last season (39.8 percent for Rubio and 38.8 percent for Mitchell), Gobert is still very much necessary for this team to operate at peak efficiency.
On top of revealing Gobert to be the most important player on the Jazz, advanced metrics also reveal that Mitchell’s impact is roughly the same as Ingles and Rubio’s. Well, there is no better source than from the man himself:
Basketball is a team game. Mitchell played his role on the Jazz, just like Ingles and Rubio. If Rubio or Ingles underperform, they can still win games; if Mitchell underperforms, it would be harder, but they can still win games; if Rudy Gobert takes a game off, it’ll be extremely difficult for them to win games.
Utah making the 2017-18 playoffs is not a testament to a single player carrying the team, it’s a testament to the offensive and defensive system implemented by coach Quin Snyder and executed by his players. At the end of the day, Snyder was the most important part of the Jazz’s 2017-18 season.
2. “If the Nuggets just kept Donovan Mitchell, they would have made the playoffs.”
This is the infamous narrative that inspired me to write this article. I just showed you that Mitchell didn’t singlehandedly lead the Jazz to the playoffs, so this narrative is already refuted; but let’s assume that he did. Let’s assume that Mitchell is every bit the legend that NBA Twitter and Reddit has made him out to be.
Well, for one, it wouldn’t matter because the gaping holes in the Nuggets roster would have remained unfilled. Drafting Mitchell would not have kept Millsap from missing most of the year with an injury and wouldn’t have allowed Denver to magically summon a useful stretch four.
On top of this, if the Nuggets kept the pick, they would not have drafted Mitchell to begin with. It seems that everyone has forgotten that the whole reason Denver even drafted Mitchell initially was for the intent to trade him to the Jazz for Lyles and the Jazz’s pick.
I already showed you that they didn’t need another guard, so why would they use that pick to draft Mitchell? The answer is they wouldn’t have. If they kept the pick, they would have used it on another big; because they were unimpressed by Mitchell, if we are assuming they would have drafted the best player available at 13.
Don’t believe me, here are 3 other sports writers who think so:
Basically, the entire point of the argument that inspired me to spend almost 2000 words refuting is based on faulty logic and bad information.
Reiterating the point I made in an earlier part of this article, in no way do I think Donovan Mitchell is less than a star in this league. I believe Donovan Mitchell is an incredible talent and will be a perennial All-NBA player if he continues to improve upon his current game; but, I think if people claim that the Nuggets made a huge mistake in not keeping Mitchell, they are making a baseless claim that ignores the context of the trade and the impact and potential that Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Trey Lyles, and Malik Beasley bring to the Nuggets’ current roster.
Hopefully, you came out of reading this article with a better understanding about the context of the trade and why it was made. If not, for the sake of constructive discord, I hope you learn the difference between a logical argument and a baseless claim.
(All stats provided by NBA.com)
(Donovan Mitchell interview provided by ESPN)