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Three Takeaways From the Cavs-Bulls-Blazers Three-Team Trade

Lauri Markkanen is headed to Cleveland, Larry Nance Jr. is headed to Portland, and Derrick Jones Jr. is headed to Chicago

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ohhhhh, you. You thought that the NBA had gone quiet for a bit? You sweet summer child; you make me laugh.

You should know by now that the NBA never goes quiet—that we are never more than mere moments away from the next landscape-shaking, league-redefining mega-deal. End of August, Friday afternoon—doesn’t matter. Head to the bomb shelters, y’all: Incoming!

… OK, so a tripartite swap of forwards and draft picks involving the Cavaliers, Bulls, and Trail Blazers isn’t exactly the kind of superstar-shuffling blockbuster #thisleague types have been waiting on with bated breath as the embers of the 2021 offseason die down. It’s pretty interesting in its own right, though: a deal that raises questions worth pondering about franchises at very different points in their respective competitive timelines. To wit:

How much does Larry Nance Jr. move the needle in Portland?

Nance should help in Portland. He’s a smart, disruptive defender who ranked sixth in the NBA in deflections per game last season, and who’s tied for the second-highest steal rate among frontcourt players since entering the league in 2015, according to Basketball-Reference. He’s versatile, too: The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Nance spent most of his floor time guarding opposing power forwards, but he also dealt with point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and centers on at least 10 percent of his defensive possessions, according to The BBall Index’s charting data.

With his strength and length, Nance could slide up to work as a 5, helping Portland find more stable paths to small-ball lineups that can leverage all of its shooting and playmaking prowess. With his quickness and athleticism, he could also bump down to serve (albeit somewhat awkwardly) as a jumbo 3—something he did quite a bit in kludged-together Cleveland lineups over the past couple of seasons—to give the Blazers a bit more brawn on the wing. Units featuring Nance, Robert Covington, and new backup center Cody Zeller should be able to capably switch across the frontcourt. Nance won’t lock up an opponent’s no. 1 scorer, but he can hold his own against threats of varying shapes and sizes, giving incoming head coach Chauncey Billups a quality option as he looks for answers to shake up last season’s second-worst defense. (Not that the Blazers needed any roster modifications to produce better defensive results; just ask Neil Olshey!)

Nance should prove a snug fit on the other end, too, as a low-usage engine-room type. He can work as a screen-and-dive big man with the hops to rise up above the defense and finish at the rim. He’s become a more viable shooting threat, hitting 35 percent of his 3s on about three attempts per 36 minutes of floor time over the past three seasons. Most importantly, though, Nance is a canny passer, dishing assists on just over 15 percent of his teammates’ baskets in that three-season span; only a dozen bigs have boasted a higher assist rate in that stretch. He’s a ball mover with good touch and vision, capable of finding shooters in transition, making high-low feeds to the paint, feeding the post, operating as a dribble-handoff hub from the elbows, and acting as a release-valve option on the short roll in the screen game:

That last bit might be the most important in Portland, where opponents love to dial up the pressure on Damian Lillard with blitzes and traps, in hopes of forcing the ball out of Dame’s hands and making his teammates beat them. The Blazers have struggled to win in those situations over the years—a big reason why so many have called for roster-rebalancing trades aimed at importing frontcourt playmakers like Draymond Green, Aaron Gordon, or Pascal Siakam who could alleviate the pressure on Lillard and CJ McCollum at the point of attack, keep the ball moving, and create scoring chances for others.

Nance isn’t quite on their level, and he’s also not quite as reliable; he’s never played more than 67 games in a season, and he missed 37 games last season with a variety of injuries. He’s that type of player, though: a useful one on both ends of the court, imported at the cost of Derrick Jones Jr. (signed last summer, a starter for more than half the season, and out of the rotation by the playoffs) and a first-round pick that’s lottery-protected from now until 2028. If he’s healthy, he’ll help, and he didn’t cost Olshey any part of the starting five in which he believes so strongly. (Though if protecting the pick that far out winds up encumbering Portland from trading other future firsts in deals that could help improve this year’s team even further, Olshey might regret it.)

It’s unlikely, though, that adding Nance on its own represents the sort of “urgent” big swing that Lillard’s been looking for all summer. Shy of moving McCollum—something Olshey’s long seemed wholly unwilling to even consider—or shopping every draft pick in the cupboard in pursuit of some other higher-end target, it’s hard to find the serious ceiling-raiser that Portland could pluck at this stage in the game. Perfect shouldn’t necessarily be the enemy of good, and the Blazers got better on Friday. Whether they’re better enough to convince the franchise player to stick around, though, remains in question.

So, like, what are the Cavs doing?

At first blush, it seems pretty odd that a team that just spent $100 million on a center and drafted an über-talented power forward/center with the third pick in the 2021 NBA draft—a team with such a glaring hole on the wing that it was playing Nance as an out-of-position 3 last season, ostensibly out of necessity—would eagerly pay another 7-footer, let alone one whom the Bulls’ new regime seemed all too happy to usher out the door. What kind of team does Koby Altman want to build in Cleveland, anyway?

The Cavs return a core of Jarrett Allen and former lottery picks Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Isaac Okoro—a foursome that got outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions last season and struggled to consistently generate quality offense. Drafting Evan Mobley seemed like a play aimed at injecting more versatility, playmaking, and defensive upside into that core. And now, in comes Markkanen, on a four-year, $67.4 million deal—with only $6 million guaranteed in the final season of the contract, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com—to do … what, exactly?

Well, spread the floor, for one thing.

In the three seasons since LeBron James left to join the Lakers, the Cavs have finished 24th, 25th, and 28th in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. For all the warts on his game, and the way he faltered in Chicago, the 24-year-old Fin just shot 40.2 percent from 3-point land on just over eight attempts per 36 minutes of floor time—rates of accuracy and frequency that would make him the top frontcourt gunner on a Cleveland team that ranked 28th in the league in 3-point attempts, 29th in 3-point makes, and dead last in 3-point percentage last season.

Sexton’s become a hell of a scorer, Garland took a significant leap forward last season as a table-setter, and Okoro has a chance to be a real helper on the wing. At a certain point, if Cleveland wants to develop something approximating a healthy half-court offensive ecosystem in which its young guys can develop and theoretically flourish, it’s going to need some players who can knock down the shots Garland creates and help open up driving lanes for Sexton and Okoro to rumble through. Markkanen represents a step in that direction, provided he doesn’t block Mobley’s path to crucial development time, or complicate matters for Allen, the newly minted $100 million man.

Markkanen is a sieve on defense whose rebounding rate has plummeted; among big men who have logged at least 2,500 minutes over the past two seasons, only Brook Lopez and Robert Covington have hauled in a smaller share of available misses than the former Arizona standout. He is not as helpful, as versatile, or as useful a player on a good team as Nance is today. But Cleveland’s not a good team today, won’t be one for a while, and likely wouldn’t be able to sign even a player of Markkanen’s stature in unrestricted free agency anytime soon. Altman is hoping that a fresh start can help Markkanen relocate the form that made him look like a future star in his early days in the league—and, in the process, help foster the development of the rest of the young core and give Cleveland’s brass more options to work through as it tries to figure out what the frontcourt mix on the next competitive iteration of the Cavs might look like.

In the short term, though? This looks like one of the league’s worst teams just got worse, even more likely to finish near the bottom of the standings and the top of the 2022 draft lottery. Maybe Cleveland can finally find another wing there.

(Markkanen’s arrival would also seem to add a little more grease to the wheels of a potential Kevin Love buyout. On one hand, the five-time All-Star might be loath to give up any significant portion of the $60.2 million he’s owed over the final two years of the extension he signed in 2018. On the other, Love is almost 33, has played in 25 or fewer games in two of the past three seasons, got kinda-sorta cut from Team USA, and might feel like following in the footsteps of Blake Griffin and Kemba Walker and take a bench role on a good team.)

Do the Bulls have another move coming?

I had the same thought as John Schuhmann of NBA.com when I saw what Chicago got back in this deal:

Nance seems like a tailor-made replacement for Thaddeus Young, the veteran playmaker and second-unit stabilizer whom Chicago sent to the Spurs in the sign-and-trade that brought DeMar DeRozan to the Windy City. He’s also better than Jones, a spring-heeled, long-armed, and whippet-thin defender who went from dunk contest champion turned afterthought in Phoenix to defensive reclamation project in Miami to out of the mix in Portland. Why wouldn’t Chicago just take Nance back in the sign-and-trade for Markkanen, leave the Blazers out of it, and call it a day?

Bringing Portland into the mix, though, added their first-rounder to the discussion. After burning a bunch of draft capital over the past year—two first-rounders to Orlando for Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline, another first and a second to San Antonio for DeRozan, another second in the sign-and-trade that landed Lonzo Ball—evidently Bulls bosses Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley preferred Portland’s lottery-protected future first and a protected 2023 second-rounder from the Nuggets, which Cleveland got for JaVale McGee at February’s trade deadline. Jones could provide defense and energy off the bench, but it seems like the priority was refilling the coffers a bit—not a bad return for a restricted free agent that Chicago didn’t seem particularly interested in keeping around anymore. (That Jones is on a $9.7 million expiring contract, while Nance is on the books for just under $20.4 million over the next two seasons, probably didn’t hurt, either.)

Maybe that’s the end of the line for the Bulls, who have gone a long way and spent a ton of money to try to put together a roster that can both make the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and convince All-Star guard Zach LaVine—who’s set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and could wind up being the top target in an underwhelming class—to re-up on a new long-term contract. With Chicago still about $6 million below the luxury tax line with a roster spot open, though, you wonder whether Karnisovas and Co. might still be on the lookout for another veteran helper who can slide into the spot Young left behind for a cheaper price than Nance. Paul Millsap’s still on the market; maybe it’d make sense for Karnisovas, part of the Nuggets front office that brought Millsap to Denver in 2017, to dial up the 36-year-old stalwart.