Lauri Markkanen has had quite an interesting stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers already in the seven months since he was first traded here. He’s been a key part of the team’s surprising success, but the results haven’t always been pretty. For the vast majority of the season, JB Bickerstaff has had him take on a very unconventional role, but he’s embraced it all the way.
Last offseason, Markkanen was one of the last big names left on the free agent market. His Restricted Free Agent label scared off some teams, and he was at odds with the team that owned salary matching rights to him, the Chicago Bulls. Eventually, the Cavs reached an agreement to bring him to the Land, but the initial reaction left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans.
The cost was a fat, 4-year $67 Million deal and fan-favorite Larry Nance Jr. Despite being younger than Nance, the move at the time seemed like an odd-choice for a rebuilding team. The Cavs already had a lot of money committed to the frontcourt, not to mention their new face of the franchise, Evan Mobley. Cleveland needed wings. Little did we know, that’s what Lauri was going to be for this team.
A big component of the Cavaliers’ success story this season has been their tall-ball revolution. In Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen, the team has opted to start three 7-footers, a sight that’s rarely ever been seen before in the history of basketball. In terms of broad strokes, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are similar in many ways. Neither being floor-spacers, they get their work done inside the arc. Defensively, they’re imposing paint presences.
Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are just absurd defensively. If the Cavs can figure out how to get a competent POA defender/floor-spacer in the starting lineup between Sexland and Frobley, then we’re looking golden. pic.twitter.com/5Z9Khiy9eT
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) October 23, 2021
With that being the case, Markkanen’s job as the third man of that group is to fill in the gaps. On both ends that means he has to play a very perimeter oriented game. A man as massive as him, spending as much time as he does beyond the perimeter, seems like a waste of his size. But the Cavs have made it work exceedingly well.
Why has “Small Forward Lauri” worked?
Despite being known as on offense-first player for his entire career, the Finnish 7-footer has made his most noticeable impact with the Cavs defensively. The process isn’t always aesthetically pleasing, but the results more than prove his worth. If you dig into it a little, the theory behind the Tower City defense makes a lot of sense.
Lauri Markkanen doing the little things has been an encouraging sight. Crashing the boards. Being active and rotating defensively. Playing physical.
All things he has to do to make the “Tower City” lineup work. pic.twitter.com/WP3V4EPefj
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) October 25, 2021
Markkanen is pretty mobile for a guy his size, and JB Bickerstaff has him playing harder than ever before. He’s putting in the effort to chase opposing small forwards around and stay attached through screens. Having a backline of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley make up for him not being the best in one-on-one situations. He allows them to be ultra-aggressive. When Lauri gets beat on the perimeter, he simply rotates back to fill in for one of Frobley without sacrificing any size down low.
Lauri Markkanen might be the most improved defensive player in the NBA this season? pic.twitter.com/vHvOVhHfpA
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) December 14, 2021
The Cavs can effectively switch three-through-five while losing minimal, if any, size or mobility. That’s given a number of teams issues this season. That’s just one side of the court, though. What he brings to the offensive unit is invaluable.
Cleveland has three designated perimeter gunners in their rotation. Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love, and Cedi Osman have all been lethal floor-spacers this season. Their combination of height, quick release, unaffectedness by contests, and shot versatility make them that high volume-high accuracy threat from deep that every team needs.
Love and Osman both come off the bench for the Cavaliers, so Markkanen brings that identity to the table for the starters. With Mobley and Allen being non-threats from outside, plus a backcourt that likes to slash inside, it’s imperative that an unabashed marksman is paired with the starting unit.
Been a rough year offensively for Lauri, he’s had to make a lot of sacrifices to allow the 3-big lineup to work…
but in the Cavs’ 5-game winning streak he’s found his rhythm again, hitting a number of timely & clutch buckets pic.twitter.com/EttXt46BBC
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) January 18, 2022
Why “Small Forward Lauri” isn’t an ideal role for him
Lauri Markkanen has done as good a job at his role as anyone could’ve hoped to have asked of him. He’s been impactful in his role. Outside of Darius Garland, he leads the team in plus-minus. However, his stats have been mildly underwhelming this season. It begs the question if this is the long-term solution for him and the Cavs.
Playing Markkanen at the three has had plenty of positives, but there’s vivid negatives as well. Using him as the team’s point-of-attack defender on the opposition’s best wing has been effective enough, but against the more talented teams the Cavs have struggled defensively at times. In a playoff situation, it remains to be seen if Tower City is actually the way to go.
In his limited offensive role, there are aspects of the former Arizona Wildcat’s game that we haven’t seen much of as well. Lauri is incredibly skilled for his size. A skill that he showed strong flashes of in Chicago, is his ability to drive the ball to the hoop. In Cleveland, the court is often cramped and Markkanen has smaller, quicker defenders on him, which make it harder for him to get by them.
I never thought of ball-handling as a strength for Lauri Markkanen, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised going through some of his film.
He can put the ball on the floor. Not at a super-high level, but he has some genuine craft. pic.twitter.com/yNGpCQwT8R
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) September 6, 2021
In the time since Jarrett Allen left due to injury, Lauri Markkanen has seen an uptick in his offensive production. This isn’t to say that Allen needs to change what he’s doing, but more so maybe that the Cavs’ offseason free agent signing needs a role shift.
A long-term role for Lauri
So if the starting small forward position isn’t the best spot for Markkanen to be beyond this season, then what is? The most likely solution is glancing at the Cavs’ 6th Man of the Year candidate this season. At 33 years old, Love is rapidly physically deteriorating. He’s had an excellent season and is playing harder than he ever has as a Cavalier, but he’s prone for regression next season.
Love’s been extremely jump shot reliant this season. He’s almost completely moved away from his low-post game that used to be his bread and butter. He’s turned himself into a phenomenal shooter, but we’re prone to see some regression from him next season.
Phenomenal shotmaking by Kevin Love in the 4th to carry the Cavs to a victory. Such an insane level of difficulty on these looks, but it doesn’t matter.
He’s having one of the best jump-shooting seasons in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/7oIFuMp3GK
— Brayden Todd (@BraydenBallin) February 1, 2022
It’s not clear how much longer the longest-tenured Cavalier will remain with the team, but it is somewhat clear that Lauri Markkanen will likely be the heir apparent to most of his minutes. This would afford him more time at the four, where he’s most comfortable at. That is… if there’s an evident replacement for him with the starters.
Along with Lauri, Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade, Caris LeVert, Cedi Osman, and Lamar Stevens could all make a case that they deserve to start at the three. Perhaps it could be another draft selection, free agency addition, or trade acquisition. There is no clear solution to who should start between Sexland and Frobley for Cleveland in future seasons.
Perhaps Lauri Markkanen remains in the starting lineup with Garland, Sexton, Mobley, and Allen. He’d still do a good job in it. It’s likely preventing us from seeing what he’s fully capable of bringing to the table, though.