In what was shaping up to be a beautiful, sunny Friday in Cleveland suddenly turned dark and gloomy. According to sources, the Cleveland Cavaliers have signed former Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen to a four-year, $67 million contract in a three-team sign-and-trade deal. The Cavaliers sent Northeast Ohio native Larry Nance Jr. to the Portland Trail Blazers while the Bulls acquired Derrick Jones Jr. and draft compensation.
Cleveland trading Nance is a tough pill to swallow from a fan's perspective. He is the son of a franchise legend that has his jersey hanging from the rafters of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. He made an effort during the season to support 72 separate local businesses financially that had been impacted by COVID-19. Nance understood what it meant to be a Cleveland fan and wore it proudly on his sleeve.
It's also tough from a team perspective but it does make some sense. Yes, Nance was arguably one of the team's best players due to his unique skillset. He also actively wanted to be in Cleveland which is rare for some players. But, he is also injury-prone and in the grand scheme of the Cavaliers young core, was starting to age out.
According to sources, Western Conference contenders like the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets were interested in acquiring Nance via trade last season. In fact, one team even offered multiple first-round picks for him. But, due to his inability to stay healthy last year that interest waned a little bit. Cleveland was unlikely to get a return that compared to what was offered last offseason but Nance was still the team's best trade asset going forward.
"If they went into next season gambling on his ability to stay healthy, it could've blown up in their faces," said one Western Conference executive. "Nance will be really good in Portland, though and Cleveland acquiring Markkanen makes them stronger too."
That's why the return in Markkanen does feel slightly underwhelming when comparing it to Nance's value both on and off the court. Last season with Chicago the Finnish forward averaged 13.6 points on 48.0% shooting, connected on 40.2% of his three-point attempts and also grabbed 5.3 boards per game. Markkanen was inconsistent throughout his time with Chicago and it felt like the team was ready to move on. This became crystal clear when the Bulls drafted Patrick Williams in the 2020 NBA Draft and acquired Nikola Vucevic at last year's trade deadline.
More than anything, Markkanen needed a fresh start and he'll get exactly that with the Cavaliers. Almost immediately, Markkanen can provide something Cleveland has needed in the worst way possible: shooting. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked dead last in the league in terms of team three-point shooting percentage. Adding a steady shooter like Markkanen to the fold will only make that number go up organically and should make the offense easier for the team's young guard tandem of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
Speaking of those young guards, Markkanen should make life easier for both of them in terms of playmaking as well. In pick and roll scenarios, Markkanen can flare out to the perimeter while either member of the SexLand duo streams towards the basket. He also makes life easier for Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, two other key pieces to Cleveland's young core, as well in terms of the theoretical spacing Markkanen provides. Markkanen can also play some three at times for the Cavaliers as he did while with the Bulls. In theory, that would allow J.B. Bickerstaff to roll out a lineup featuring three bigs once again but this time there will be much more spacing between them all.
But, while Markkanen gives to Cleveland makes some sense in a vacuum, it does also provide more questions than answers long-term. The most prominent being how much money the Cavaliers have committed to their stable of big me going forward. It's estimated that Markkanen will make $15.6 million next season due to his extension not being fully guaranteed. After that, Kevin Love is set to make $31.3 million. There's then Allen bringing home $20 million and Mobley making $8.1 million as well.
That amounts to $75 million in total that Cleveland is committing to their bigs next season. Even if the Cavaliers were to buy out Love's contract, and with the Markkanen extension that seems likely, that number still won't go down by that much. In a modern NBA that's perimeter-oriented, investing so much money in your big men makes little sense. Factor in on top of that the fact that Cleveland still has to pay Sexton by next offseason and that Garland is extension eligible next summer too and things get even messier financially.
Given that Cleveland isn't a free agency destination, it's likely that the Cavaliers will have money committed to the majority of their young core by next season. While general manager Koby Altman can still make some moves to maintain financial flexibility, committing all this money to a largely unproven roster is putting a limit on this team's long-term potential. Again, acquiring Markkanen will improve a lot of things for this Cleveland squad – especially in terms of shooting. But, what Nance provided, on a much cheaper deal, appears to counterbalance what Markkanen brings to the table significantly.
Signing Markkanen also doesn't fully address the team's need on the wing either, which is now an even more pressing priority. It still feels like there is still at least one more move to come from Cleveland, though. With Nance now gone their best remaining trade chip is their 2022 first-round selection. Perhaps Altman packages that pick alongside Cedi Osman in order to upgrade their depth on the perimeter. Or the Cavaliers just stand pat and head into training camp banking on their potential growth. According to sources, the former seems like a long shot while the latter seems like a risky gamble. It remains to be seen what will happen next but expect the unexpected from the Cavaliers.