Confusing move: Cavaliers acquire Lauri Markkanen via sign-and-trade



Lauri Markkanen is traded by the Chicago Bulls to the Cleveland Cavaliers. /CFP

The Cleveland Cavaliers reached agreement with the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers on a three-team trade which saw restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen join the Cavaliers on a sign-and-trade deal, according to ESPN.

24-year-old Markkanen received a four-year, $67-million contract. The Trail Blazers had Larry Nance Jr. who has two years, $20 million left of his contract. The Bulls got a 2023 second-round draft pick, a 2022 first-rounder (lottery protected) and Derrick Jones Jr., who has only one year, $9.7 million left of his current deal.

Larry Nance Jr. (#22) of the Cleveland Cacaliers dunks in the game against the Chicago Bulls at United Center in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 24, 2021. /CFP

Both Portland and Chicago got what they needed from the trade. Though Nance suffered injury and only played 35 games for the Cavaliers last season, he is an underestimated big-man defender who can switch to cover perimeter players and contribute 1.7 steals per game. He can give Portland more defensive options than simply closing in around the paint.

Jones Jr. has good size and athleticism as a wing defender. With him in the roster, the Bulls can put DeMar DeRozan in the shooting guard position, avoiding watching him become a defensive liability in mismatch. Though there was only very limited Jones Jr. could do offensively, the Bulls have Zach LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic to worry about that.

By contrast, the Cavaliers' intention of making this deal is confusing. Their paint was already very crowded before the trade. Replacing Nance Jr. with Markkanen won't make it better.

Jarrett Allen (#31) of the Celveland Cavaliers dunks in the game against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., U.S., April 25, 2021. /CFP

The Cavaliers gave Jarett Allen a five-year, $100-million contract extension, obviously making him part of their future plan. They drafted Evan Mobley, a 2.13-meter-tall, 20-year-old big men from the University of Southern California with the third overall pick in July. Young men require time to grow, especially big men in today's NBA. Moreover, don't forget that Kevin Love is still on the roster of the Cavaliers. The team must give him time to play on the court, either because he can help, or to show other teams that he's still valuable.

Of the above three, Allen is the rim protector; Mobley is the promising young blood; Love is the experienced veteran who can score and stretch the spacing. What can Markkanen offer to the Cavaliers that one of the three can't provide?

Evan Mobley (#4) of the Cleveland Cavaliers competes for a rebound in the NBA Summer League game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., August 13, 2021. /CFP

When Markkanen was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the seventh overall pick and sent to the Bulls, he was seen as another "unicorn" that came to the NBA. He has 2.13-meter height, delicates skills and a shooting range that can reach the 3-point line. Averaging 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 triples at 36.2-percent rate was quite impressive.

However, as time went on, Markkanen did not progress as fast as people expected him to. On the contrary, his defensive weakness and lack of aggressiveness were further intensified. Having played four years in the league, he averaged only 0.5 block, 1.2 assists and 2.7 free throw attempts per game. Draining 2.3 triples at 40.2-percent rate became the only highlight of his game last season. Moreover, Markkanen already showed signs of "glass man" – he missed 14, 20, 15 and 21 games respectively in the four seasons since he came to the league. That makes his four-year, $67-million contract a very risky investment.