To cap off a fairly active off-season, the Cleveland Cavaliers swung a three team trade with the Portland Trailblazers and Chicago Bulls that landed Lauri Markkanen in Cleveland via sign and trade. While the deal has been questioned for a multitude of reasons (more on this later), there is intriguing potential in what Markkanen can provide to Cleveland.
The Cavs were 25th in three point attempt rate and dead last in three point percentage for the 2021 season; Markkanen’s shooting accuracy and attempts per game would’ve been the top marks on the team among players who played at least 30 games. So much more goes into shooting than is encapsulated in basketball reference. Where is the shot coming from? How is the shooter getting to the spot? How is that shot defended? When was the shot taken?
When diving back into Markkanen’s game the past week, the possibilities that he could open up for the Cavaliers’ offense became tantalizing. With some tweaks to his game and approach along with some wizardry from J.B. Bickerstaff, Markkanen could supply Cleveland with shot versatility and set dynamics the team sorely lacked last season.
Pick & Pop, Ghosting, and Set Versatility
Markkanen can immediately benefit the Cavaliers by providing the ability to throw wrinkles and complexity to Cleveland’s sets. While it’s worth noting that the team was pretty barren of playmaking and shooting last year, the sets and offense in general were fairly basic and often lacked secondary actions, dying out if the initial option was shut down. With two small guards who rely heavily on pick and roll to create efficient offense, adding in Markkanen opens up opportunities to bend a defense.
Something the Bulls would occasionally run with Markkanen last year was a DHO into staggers in the corners to try and force the tagger into headache inducing decisions. Do you tag the roller (Gafford) and prevent the lob or at-rim attempt, ceding an open look to an elite shooter? Lauri misses the attempt, but draws a hard closeout. The process makes sense and while it was defended well, there’s still an open shot, which is a win for the offense.
Last season, the Cavs lacked shooters who could consistently draw hard closeouts. Having a player in Markkanen who can be an effective and potentially elite pick and pop player could be a boon for the Cavaliers’ back court.
However, stationary shooting on its own is fairly replaceable. What makes Markkanen so intriguing is what he can do with movement and versatility in his shot.
Markkanen was routinely used last season as a shooter off of flare screens. Especially for sets utilizing two bigs, which the Cavs will run often considering roster construction, this gives more intriguing looks that the team didn’t consistently have last season. Having an above average roll threat in Jarrett Allen, paired with a perimeter oriented big with positive shooting gravity (Markkanen), forces opposing defenses to think in a way they just didn’t have to previously.
Now let’s say that Sexton or Garland is at the top of the arc and needs to create an advantage, Markkanen can rip up and ghost a screen. This adds another element to make the defense bend.
Something I’m interested to see from Lauri this season is how he gets utilized as a screener and popper. The best way for the Cavaliers to utilize seems to be furthering his development as a master floor spacer. While the pick and pop game has shown bright flashes, Markkanen has room for improvement that could help him become an even better shooter.
He has a tendency to fade on his shot after ghosting a screen or if he’s not popping to his immediate area. Markkanen’s hips are pretty stiff, but his footwork can be inconsistent moving sideways, causing him to have to readjust and make his shot prep clunky or sped up. Honing in on his footwork could do wonders for his ability as a shooter and a screen and pop player.
Movement Shooting and Craft Inside the Arc
One of the things I was genuinely surprised by in going back and watching Markkanen is how much he works off the ball and off screens. He’s good at timing his moves, takes good paths, and sets his feet fairly well flying off stagger screens from the corner.
I’m curious to see how far he can stretch is game as a shooter off of movement. He’s already quite good at relocating in the corner to accommodate for drivers and changing passing lanes. Can Markkanen become someone who takes multiple shots per game off of screens? Can he develop some sort of release valve actions with either of the starting guards or Ricky Rubio with bench units? The base is there, building off it could do wonders for him and the Cavs.
With his established shooting gravity this past season, Markkanen drew solid closeouts as mentioned, leading to opportunities to put pressure on the rim and attack the paint.
Markkanen really excelled on a bevy of floaters and runners coming pumping and driving from the corners. His height and length combined with his touch made him extremely effective from the short mid-range, finishing there at a 53% clip (86th percentile among bigs per Cleaning the Glass).
Markkanen also popped with some occasional opportunistic post-up attempts. He lacks lower body strength and struggles to get low, but his jump hook was money especially when presented with a mismatch.
This is where things get both murky and fascinating with Markkanen, and where my biggest hang ups come with him as a player.
Markkanen had a breakout year this past season with his efficiency, eclipsing league average true-shooting for the first time in his career. I don’t think it’s fair to equate everything to small-sample size, but it stands to reason that Lauri’s numbers this past season feel difficult to sustain.
Markkanen Offensive Numbers
|C and S 3P%
|C and S 3P%
Throughout Markkanen’s first three seasons, he shot just 132/385 (34.3%) from 4-14 feet aka short mid-range. The biggest efficiency boost for him this past season was that massive jump from a 20th percentile finisher to 86th percentile finisher in that range over the course of one off-season.
While I noted earlier that Markkanen is a quality off-ball mover, the problem there is that Markkanen is one of the slowest players in the NBA. So while he takes good paths, it frankly doesn’t matter at times. Looking at fantastic off-ball shooters like Davis Bertans, Doug McDermott, and Buddy Hield, they have tremendous straight-line speed or explosion into cuts that allows them to get to their spots and create space.
While the screening isn’t great here, Killian Tillie is able to chase Markkanen around a set of staggered screens and come in with a late contest.
With someone much better suited as a chase, Chuma Okeke, guarding him, Markkanen gets chased off the line because he can't create separation.
He does draw the foul with the drive, but the lack of foot speed and explosiveness is a legitimate hindrance to his ability to become a top tier movement shooter. Being able to move is uhhh pretty important to that.
So that leads us to the next quandary. Markkanen doesn’t really have the shake in his handle to create separation either, so he tends to float on an island of inability to create space outside of his own height and length. Adding that onto his struggles with absorbing and initiating contact, and it’s difficult to project what that means for his finishing ability.
I lean towards believing in the shooting, even if there is a slight regression, the attempts are there and there is still room for improvement. But, so much hinges on what he does when run off of the line.
Due to the fact that he’s not often getting to the rim consistently (17th %ile in rim frequency last season), he’s forced to take a pretty decent chunk of shots from an area that requires supreme efficiency to merit taking with regularity. Markkanen had that last season to be fair, but the historical precedent just isn’t there and it’s very much a ‘wait and see’ game with how he’ll fair there this season.
Intersection of Limitations and Production
Per Cleaning the Glass, Markkanen has finished in the bottom 15%ile of Assist to Usage all four seasons of his career. Assists, of course, are not the end all be all of playmaking indication, but it stands out in watching that Markkanen struggles at times as a decision maker. He’s not adept at making the next pass/connective reads or making reads off of drives.
That’s ok, not every player needs to be a great passer or playmaker to add value to a team. However, for a player like Markkanen who derives most of his added impact through scoring, lacking substantial playmaking ability or court vision makes it even more essential to finish at a higher clip. Lauri Markkanen needs to be a borderline elite finisher and shooter to make up for his defensive shortcomings, as well as his lack of playmaking ability. As illustrated throughout the article, there are ways in which that could happen, but it remains to be seen whether or not Lauri Markkanen can become an elite finisher in a sustained manner.
No matter how you slice it, it’s difficult to find a positive spin on the value proposition of the trade for Cleveland. I do think there is a tendency to over-stress contract valuation; Markkanen’s deal isn’t catastrophic. It’s personally not what I would’ve been willing to offer, but part of the idea behind the deal seems to be Lauri playing/developing his way into it.
That’s the vexing part of the ideology of the trade. The Cavaliers are a team that is quite clearly trying to make the playoffs within the next season or two. Trading your 3rd best player who has been much more impactful than Markkanen to winning throughout his career and likely will be for some time, is just odd decision-making from the front office.
Larry Nance Jr. is a borderline All-Defense caliber player (necessary alongside the Sexton/Garland duo), he’s a quicker and better decision maker, better ballhandler and passer, superior athlete, and his shot from deep has found consistency and improved volume over the past 3 seasons.
You need good veterans to help grow as an established playoff team and provide a buffer for younger players who are still developing. Nance provided that and then some with two years left on a team friendly contract. Lauri Markkanen provides value, but the jury is out to whether or not he can provide more to the Cavaliers than the player he was exchanged for.