CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t initially have restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen in their offseason sights.
They thought Chicago would re-sign him or he’d get a lucrative offer sheet worth more than the $9.5 million they could present with the full mid-level exception.
Wing was always Cleveland’s priority. Specifically, wing shooter.
The busy front office, which isn’t done constructing the roster and continues to explore that pricey market, has talked with every team. Memphis about Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson. Indiana about Jeremy Lamb. Utah about Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. Orlando about Terrence Ross. Sacramento about Harrison Barnes. Atlanta about Cam Reddish. New Orleans about Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. The list is long.
Some of the conversations centered on Larry Nance Jr. Others were about Cleveland’s 2022 first-round pick. The Cavs even dangled a package of future seconds (San Antonio and Houston) along with salary filler to see if that moved the proverbial needle.
Each case was different. But the gist: The price was too high, teams weren’t willing to trade those players or the Cavs, wanting to do right by Nance, couldn’t find a fitting destination away from some of those lottery teams.
More time passed. Phone calls continued. Training camp grew closer. Then, an unexpected opportunity arose — a potential three-team trade between Cleveland, Portland and Chicago that allowed the Cavs to address their greatest need. Not a position. A skill.
On Friday morning, the Cavs agreed to acquire Markkanen — a talented 24-year-old 7-footer who hit a career-best 40% from 3-point range last season and was looking for a fresh start after four tumultuous seasons in Chicago. The Cavs gave up fan favorite Nance and a 2023 second-round pick from the Denver Nuggets. As part of the sign-and-trade, Markkanen will ink a four-year, $67.4 million contract (only $6 million is guaranteed in the final year).
It’s incredibly risky. When healthy, Nance lifts Cleveland’s floor. He’s one of their most productive players — a multi-positional plus-defender with an improving shooting stroke. He’s better equipped to help the Cavs win in the short term.
But Markkanen, a former top-10 pick who looked like a budding star in his second season before seemingly falling out of favor, can raise Cleveland’s ceiling.
That’s the kind of swing rebuilding teams must take.
“Lauri has always been really exciting to us,” a source said. “Everyone knows we need shooting. This is a 7-foot sniper. The fit is unbelievable — even though the deal is obviously bittersweet and sensitive.”
Nance, a team leader and culture piece on a bargain contract, was one of their few reliable veterans. Acquired midway through the 2017-18 season from Los Angeles, he quickly ingratiated himself to the organization, fan base and community. His meaning — on and off the court — can’t be undersold and it goes beyond the emotional aspect. It’s why so many suitors pestered general manager Koby Altman for the last year-plus about a trade, with the Cavs rebuffing many of those offers, including one at the trade deadline that had multiple late first-rounders.
But everything changed on July 29. The Cavs drafted Evan Mobley with the No. 3 pick. Mobley, the most important player in Cleveland’s potential renaissance, is likely to start at power forward this season and the organization is deeply committed to his on-court development. Not only does he bring many of Nance’s best traits but it creates a logjam in the frontcourt.
Sources tell cleveland.com that Nance, who turns 29 in January and is better suited for a win-now organization, naturally started wondering about his role and potential playing time. Would it be diminished? Would he need to play the 5? Shift to the 3 in certain lineups? Even though there was a path to make the situation work, the two sides discussed the possibility of moving him to a better situation, one that had more available minutes, a possible starting or closing role and winning potential.
According to sources close to Nance, he wasn’t caught off guard by Friday’s agreed-to deal. He is happy about his fit with the Blazers — and a chance to play with Damian Lillard and buddy CJ McCollum. Portland, which finished sixth in the Western Conference last season and hired Chauncey Billups to replace Terry Stotts, gives Nance a chance to play meaningful games, something he unsurprisingly wants at this stage of his career. If the Blazers implode, or shift into a rebuild, Nance can leave as an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2022-23.
Because of his age, size and shooting, the Cavs believe Markkanen is a better fit. Time will tell. At the very least, he’s a better scorer, averaging 15.6 points in his career. He’s also a more reliable — and willing — shooter. After finishing 28th in offensive rating, last in scoring and 3-point percentage, 29th in 3-pointers made and 28th in attempts, the Cavs needed a jolt at that end of the floor.
Getting Markkanen under contract on what they consider a good number for the next four years was a boon. Numerous free agents turned down Cleveland’s offers over the last month. Most of the available wings on the trade market have expiring contracts. Dealing Nance for one year of Lamb, Anderson or Ingles wasn’t appealing. None have Markkanen’s upside. Plus, given J.B. Bickerstaff’s plans with his rotation this coming season, the Cavs believe there are more minutes for floor-spacing Markkanen, who can play either the 4 or 5, than any acquired wing, especially with second-year swingman Isaac Okoro slated to start at small forward — and play big minutes — once again. The Cavs will keep looking for a capable backup 3. This is unlikely to be the final move made this offseason.
Garrison Matthews, Denzel Valentine and Svi Mykhailiuk are free agency options. Mykhailiuk, sources say, may join the Los Angeles Lakers on a minimum deal.
Meanwhile, the Cavs are betting big that a change of scenery brings out the best in still-developing Markkanen. To this point, the idea of Markkanen has been more appealing than his overall play. But in Chicago, there were coaching changes and the youngster never played with a true point guard. A messy situation, in and out of the starting lineup with the Bulls, the Cavs have a stable role waiting. Even though he will come off the bench, Markkanen is slated to get starter’s minutes, provided he holds up on the defensive end — a glaring weakness early in his career. Members of the organization believe he has untapped offensive potential.
Any Nance trade was going to be complicated. It was, no doubt, going to stir emotions. Altman used to joke with opposing executives that he would have to be included in the deal because fans wouldn’t welcome the GM in Cleveland anymore. Nance was the Cavaliers’ voice for the last few years. He was an adult on a team filled with kids. Did incredible things in the community. Known affectionately as Mr. Cleveland.
On Friday morning, Nance was en route to a wedding in Florida, through a Chicago connection. The news broke shortly before he boarded. Then his plans changed. Nance touched down, had nearly 100 messages on his phone, grabbed a car and then started driving back home to Cleveland. About six hours on the road to process the deal. Soon, he will be headed to Portland — a move that sparked plenty of reaction across Northeast Ohio.
The Cavs were only going to trade Nance for an equally-talented, better-fitting or higher-upside player. Did they accomplish that?
Only Markkanen possesses the answer.
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