Initial perceptions of the trade for Larry Nance Jr.—an objective win in our estimation—were marred for some team followers by their assumption Portland could've acquired Lauri Markkanen instead.
The Chicago Bulls' ultimate haul for Markkanen in Friday's surprising three-team trade was a lottery-protected first-round pick, a 2023 second-rounder and Derrick Jones Jr., functioning mostly as salary ballast. The Trail Blazers could've matched that package for Markkanen by themselves if Neil Olshey wanted, leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the deal entirely. The front office, evidently, simply valued Nance more.
Within hours after news of the trade broke, K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago reported that the agreed-upon trade evolved from a starting point of discussions between Portland and Chicago for Markkanen.
Why was Cleveland ultimately looped in? The Blazers balked at the Bulls' demand of adding a second-round pick to their offer of a protected first-round pick and Jones, according to Johnson.
According to two sources, the talks originally centered on Markkanen landing with the Trail Blazers in exchange for Jones Jr. and the lottery-protected first-round pick. When the Bulls sought an extra second-round pick, the talks expanded to include the Cavaliers.
Portland has just two second-round picks between now and the 2027 draft, next summer's and in 2024. It makes sense that the Blazers would value second-rounders a bit higher than most teams around the league, even before accounting for Olshey's affinity for signing second-round rookies to cheap, guaranteed contracts.
If the front office really preferred Markkanen to Nance, though, the sticking point of a second-round pick forcing them to plan B doesn't exactly project the pointed sense of urgency Damian Lillard is demanding. The apparent in-house notion that Markkanen would have been a bigger upgrade for the Blazers deserves more scrutiny.
Offense isn't what Portland needs, obviously, and there's even a case to be made that Nance will bring more on that end than Markkanen given the Blazers' roster construction and Chauncey Billups' playing preferences.
It's no secret Markkanen believes he's been miscast as a floor-spacer; his frustration with the Bulls extended beyond contract negotiations. Markkanen wants more touches on the block and elbow-extended isos, the chance to prove he can live up to post-draft hype as something close to a primary scorer.
Markkanen shot an eye-popping 62.5 percent from the post last season, per NBA.com/stats, but on just 24 shots. He also turned the ball over at an exorbitant rate, evidence that combined with previous career numbers on the block casts further doubt on his chances to ever emerge as some high-usage offensive hub. Markkanen isn't a good passer, and doesn't have the off-dribble juice needed to consistently run pick-and-roll. The palpable force he plays with at his best has proven fleeting over and over.
Portland just parted ways with Carmelo Anthony. This team doesn't need another shoot-first forward whose clout alone earns him touches. Even if the Blazers could have convinced Markkanen to fully embrace being a dependent offensively player, only so much surplus value is gleaned from a sweet-shooting seven-footer who has to play next to a center. Markkanen's 40.2 percent three-point shooting last season could also prove an outlier; he hadn't previously managed 37 percent from deep.
The many answers Nance provides on defense and in terms of lineup flexibility would have been replaced by even more questions if Portland ended up with Markkanen. He's a minus defender, without the foot speed to chase wings or the length and anticipation to protect the rim. Slotting him next to Jusuf Nurkic or Cody Zeller would've sorely exacerbated the Blazers' issues with defense at the point of attack.
The final factor here? Markkanen didn't have interest in playing 2021-22 on his qualifying offer. Portland surely would've signed him to an extension approaching the four-year, $67 million deal he got from Cleveland, adding significant long-term money to a team facing a crossroads until Lillard demands a trade or re-stakes his roots. Nance's bargain, descending contract, on the other hand, comes off the books after 2022-23.
Markkanen is far more skilled than Nance, boasting a blend of height and comfort with the ball that hints at potential stardom. But his ceiling has lowered every season since he was a rookie. Markkanen's floor could be lower than anticipated given his clear reluctance to play a supporting role, too.
The rebuilding Cavaliers, no matter what you think of Markkanen's odd roster fit and pricey new contract, can live with taking that risk. The Blazers just weren't in the right place to do it, especially with a comparative sure-thing like Nance being readily available for a lesser trade package.
Good thing Cleveland held strong on that demand for a second-rounder.