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Should the Knicks be interested in trading for a disgruntled Lauri Markkanen?

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The Finnisher is grumpy in the Windy City, which should interest the Knicks

Cleveland Cavaliers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks sat at 21-45 — the sixth worst record in the league — prior to the indefinite suspension of the regular season. Under Mike Miller they were 17-27, roughly a 32-win pace over the course of 82 games. That would have exceeded Vegas’ over/under line, and the predictions of most media members and blogbois alike (including yours truly’s 30-win prediction) prior to the season.

There was genuine progression from the likes of young players like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Frank Ntilikina over the course of the season. Kevin Knox showed definitive improvement defensively, but stagnated offensively with his jump-shot deserting him entirely for much of the season. Allonzo Trier was the forgotten man, and the less said about Dennis Smith Jr., the better. Damyean Dotson outplayed his competition on the wing, but racked up DNP’s towards what wound up being the end of the season.

Of the Knicks’ free agent acquisitions there weren’t too many success stories. Yet they were able to parlay Marcus Morris’ scorching stint in New York into the Clippers’ 2020 first round pick, and the right to the Pistons’ 2021 second rounder — a nice grab in what is being touted as a stacked draft class. Julius Randle is good, but his fit on the court seems clunky. Elfrid Payton was fine, but any long-term pairing with him alongside Barrett would be completely misguided. Reggie Bullock was OK, and with a $4 million option for next season it would make sense to hold onto him. Taj Gibson was a solid veteran presence, it would be nice to bring him back on a cheaper contract. Wayne Ellington and Bobby Portis had moments, but are unlikely to have made a case to return next season and may not be interested.

Here are the 2019–20 Knicks offensive and defensive 5-Year RAPMs. To no-one’s surprise, the players who rate out best on defense are Frank Ntilikina, Taj Gibson, and Mitchell Robinson. Also, Robinson rates out to having the largest impact when he’s on the court. This shouldn’t be a shock either. Barrett should eventually get up to a positive on defense once the Knicks actually start playing better lineups.

In one of our Know the Prospect articles leading up to last year’s draft, I wrote this:

The Knicks need help everywhere. They need guys that can pass. They need guys that can handle. They need guys that can shoot. They need guys that can defend. They need guys who have good basketball IQ. They need so, so much.

All of this still applies. New President of Basketball Operations Leon Rose must abso-fucking-lutely have a plan to address the team’s various deficiencies in order to optimize their core young talent, specifically Barrett and Robinson. Along with the never-ending search for a high-level lead ball handler, a power forward capable of spacing the floor should be a priority for this team so that there is at least some semblance of tangible progress here.

Enter Lauri Markkanen. The Chicago Bulls’ power forward had a tumultuous third year with the franchise. He wasn’t comfortable with the extreme analytical approach taken by the organization, put in place by the data team to guide shot distribution. He also clashed with Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, along with what seemed like half the fucking team.

Markkanen, is apparently now on his final tether with the organization. Per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times:

And then there was the quiet storm, privately churning in the corner since early on in the season, keeping his frustrations as off-the-record one-liners, discrediting the direction of the offense, his role in it, and the highly embraced shot profile that Bulls analytics was stressing.

Make no mistake about it, third-year big man Lauri Markkanen was one unhappy camper before the coronavirus put the NBA on hiatus. Unhappy enough that if the direction of the organization was going to stay unchanged, he’d rather be elsewhere.

It does seem the Bulls are looking at a major front office shakeup, but there’s no guarantee that would assuage Markkanen’s existing concerns, or that the new front office would view him as a prized building block for the future. If any team knows that simply making changes at the executive and coaching level isn’t enough to un-gruntle a disgruntled young star, it’s certainly the New York Knicks.

So, given all of this, a question worth pondering is how interested the Knicks should be in acquiring Markkanen, and at what cost. To discuss the topic in depth I recruited my great friend, game preview impresario and P&T’s resident NBA 2K king of kings, Stingy D himself, Jon Schulman.

Shwinnypooh: I’ve long been a fan of Markkanen and his potential fit with the Knicks. There’s so much he provides offensively at a position of need for this franchise that it’s hard not to get excited about the possibility of him being available as an option. That said, I’m curious what your thoughts are on Markkanen through his time in the NBA, and what you think his ceiling is as a player before we even get into fit and the cost of acquiring him.

If the Knicks can find a way to convince the Bulls by taking on the last year of Otto Porter’s contract, that would be a cherry on top. Ignore some guys like Adam Mokoka and Max Strus [Stingy note- I actually like Max Strus but whatever] because they barely play. Lauri over his career being an overall plus player on a crappy Bulls team speaks volumes.

Stingy: In a strange way he reminds me of Barrett. In college I thought both of them were just too big for their match-ups and a general lack of tenacity on defense made them unambiguously one-way players that were also distinctly limited; RJ by his bad shooting and decision making, and Lauri by his willingness to defer. I thought he’d just get run over by nasty forwards and pointy-elbowed wings. Both guys were good athletes for their position but neither were electric. I worried that they’d struggle to identify how to help their respective teams but eventually they’d figure something out. Turns out they just played for coaches who are much more critically flawed than the players are.

Neither kid struck me as a bonafide All-Star, but they could become solid building blocks of a rotation if, if, if. Heading into the draft I saw your classic second-contract type players. Let someone else figure them out, or in this case push them out, then you can swoop in on a more realized player.

RJ proved me wrong pretty quickly. His offense was as advertised, although his shot selection was much better. It’s on the other side of the ball where he immediately seemed like a different player from what we’d seen. As for Markkanen, everything changed when a beefier slab of Lauri dumbed out for Finland in the 2017 FIBA Qualifiers. He punished smalls, skated on bigs, was a precision passer out of double teams, finished with force, finesse, guile and ingenuity. Making all variety of shots, guiding Finland through games and taking control in the clutch. He suddenly had a lot more Pau Gasol in his game and a lot less Patrick Patterson. Then he hit the ground running, he was first team All-Rookie, but this 2019-20 season was a mess. What the hell happened?

Shwinnypooh: Good question! For one, Zach Lavine and Markkanen have never developed particularly good chemistry. Lavine’s role as an on-ball creator means the Finnisher’s offensive involvement was often reduced to a spot-up, floor-spacing role when I watched the Bulls this season which, admittedly, wasn’t often.

It’s unfair to pin this all on Lavine, though. Markkanen shared the court plenty with him in 2018-19, and that didn’t stop Lauri from seemingly having a breakthrough. He missed the first 23 games of the season with an injury, and took a little time to get his legs under him. However, over his final 33 games, before yet another injury — a troublingly frequent occurrence with him — Markkanen averaged 20 and 10 on 43/35/89 splits, coupling an increase in his usage with efficiency.

So what was it this season that saw him regress in a number of ways? The addition of Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young, and Coby White seem to have led to a share of his touches and shots being redistributed elsewhere. Additionally, as mentioned above, the extreme analytical approach seems to have eliminated shots from some of his comfort zones on the floor. In combination with Jim Boylen’s bullshit, it all led to a lost development year.

Here is how the 2019–20 Bulls rate out in 5-Year RAPM. I find it rather amusing that the Bulls added legitimate good role players to their roster and they somehow still stunk it up. Zach LaVine being truly awful on defense is no surprise, but Markannen almost being a plus defender is a bit eye-opening.

What is his best role then? He clearly doesn’t have the chops to be the guy for a team, but he also can’t exist in a purely deferential off-ball role. One of his biggest strengths coming into the NBA was his movement shooting, something which he didn’t get much opportunity to exploit this season. He’s also always been extremely fluid for his size with the ball in his hands.

The two-fold question for the Knicks then becomes: Can they optimize those skills in a way that suits him and complements their young core pieces? And how much is that worth in trade?

Stingy: Lauri Markkanen is the Bobby Portis that Bobby Portis thinks Bobby Portis is. New York already uses the Bobsled pretty nicely in dribble hand-offs and pick-and-pops, plus he gets an unnecessary heap of post-up touches. Markkanen is a much better shooter in every situation, and like you mentioned, he can score on the go. Get him chugging downhill going left and he’s creating havoc. I think Markkanen is good enough to play Bobby Portis’ game with Julius Randle’s minutes. To wit, if you had an idealized Portis in Randle’s role, it should unlock the floor and simultaneously give guys like Barrett and Frank Ntilikina a chance to lead the action. All this without crowding Mitchell Robinson.

That should also soothe the concerns Lauri is having in Chicago, because Barrett and Ntilikina are much more concentrated ball movers than what he’s seen with the Bulls. Take a look at his numbers with Zach LaVine.

Here we have how the Bulls performed with Markkanen on the court and the on/off splits with the Bulls’ primary option, Zach LaVine. As you can see, the average net rating over three seasons suggest that the Bulls are marginally better with Markannen on and LaVine off. There is no discernible difference in the shooting metrics and the assist percentage actually increases with LaVine off, suggesting that the Bulls pass more when LaVine isn’t on the court.

At 22 years young, that is worth a lot to me. I’d say the only question is how much would it take? Certainly I’d put Randle and Dennis Smith Jr. in any package, but their values are probably pretty low. The Knicks do have draft picks at the ready, but as a rebuilding team with holes basically everywhere, certainly you have to believe they’ll need to hit on some picks before next summer’s free agency.

Shwinnypooh: The “how much” conundrum may be getting even more complicated. The Bulls seem poised to appoint Arturas Karnisovas as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations under Michael Reinsdorf, with GarPax finally falling out of favor.

Presumably, to move off of a player with admirers around the league, the Bulls should command a pretty penny for Markkanen. If Chicago’s new front office wants to chart a course of its own making and think it prudent to cash in on him a year before he hits free agency, the Knicks certainly have a war chest to dig into.

The franchise, for once, has a surfeit of first round picks at their disposal with the Clippers’ 2020 first round pick and the Mavericks’ 2021 and 2023 (top-10 protected) in tow, in addition to all of their own. While Barrett and Robinson would certainly be off limits in trade talks, it’s likely the Knicks would at least talk turkey about everybody else. Ntilikina, Knox, and Smith Jr. would be on the table, but their valuations may not meaningfully move the needle.

Here is another way to visualize the 2019–20 Knicks’ 5-Year RAPMs. Plus, I added the luck-adjusted version of the metric as well. Remember, luck-adjustment take into account the point differentials when the players are shooting their career averages, and not what they do during stretches. Take a look at Payton’s and Ntilikina’s LA-ORAPM and ORAPM. You’re probably asking, “Why, Drew?” Having a larger luck-adjusted ORAPM figure compared to the regular ORAPM figure suggests that the player is not positively impacting the play on the court as much as he should when accounting for actual shooting numbers. Ntilikina’s differential suggests that he is positively impacting the offense compared to Payton, despite Payton still having an undisputed positive impact on the offense.

So ultimately it would come down to draft compensation, with the Knicks’ lottery pick in the upcoming draft looming large. I’m a big fan of Killian Hayes, but if you put a gun to my head and ask me who has a better chance of turning into an All-Star over the next five years of their careers, I’d say Markkanen. LaMelo Ball has incredible potential, but the tantalizing upside that’s so easy to envision as the destination would require him completing a rather arduous journey. Anthony Edwards is a complete enigma who can look like a surefire superstar and Gerald Green 2.0 within the same game. Deni Avdija looks like a well-rounded jack-of-all trades, but will he ever master one?

I don’t know, and I’m sick of not knowing. Maybe I’m just being a Debbie Downer about the top end of this draft, but I’ve never wanted more to trade a lottery pick for a current NBA player with a tangible baseline of production and upside still to reach for than I do right now. Would I trade a top-4 overall pick for Markkanen? Not straight up, because that’s a terrible use of assets, but what if the pick lands at No. 6 or later? Yeah, I’ll pull the trigger.

Is that too much? Do you think there’s a deal to be made with one of the non-RJ/Mitch young guys and some of the other picks we have in the war chest?

Stingy: A “surfeit”. Calm your tits, doc. Now look at this junk Doug sent me:

In terms of just raw production on the court, there wouldn’t be much of a drop-off if the Knicks were to swap Julius Randle for Lauri Markkanen. Sure, Markannen doesn’t provide the same level of offensive rebounding or generating assists, but you want the ball in the hands of RJ Barrett more anyway when it comes to creating for others. With that said, Markkanen’s ability to legitimate space the floor without a significant drop-off in 2-point shooting percentage creates a much more balanced fit on offense compared to Randle.

Hey how about that, it’s exactly what I said. Meanwhile, Markkanen is 22, whereas Randle and Portis are 25. So he’s already their superior in a lot of ways and not far behind in others. Still, Randle, the oldest in the group, seems to ever so slightly have the statistical edge.

So! Does this mean I’d tack on two or three picks plus players to nab him? No, I’m not quite there. In the vacuum of a top 6ish pick or Lauri Markkanen, I want Lauri. In the vacuum next door to that vacuum — would I prefer Markkanen to Randle? — hell yea, man! The only problem is, I bet the Bulls do too, even though Lauri is going to require a payday next season. Chicago is absolutely the team that will dare him to get a deal on the open market and then spite-match it.

When I consider the Knicks’ assets, I just don’t think there is a feasible way to make this happen without shedding enough blood to get lightheaded. I don’t think some package of youngsters and the 2020 picks is moving that freaking needle, mommy. The Bulls currently sit in the seventh slot in the draft, so why would they want the Knicks’ pick too? Are they really trying to jam up their backcourt with all those guards you’re not convinced by? Then to top it off, is Lauri Markkanen really worth two or three or more picks?

I hate to say it, because I know we’re enemies now, but I’d rather have the continuity of Portis and Randle with the potential for some youngsters to take a leap and a little luck to win the lottery. Then, next year the Knicks can do away with all these fools and ghouls and it won’t cost this pound of flesh you’re so eager to lop off. From there you show Lauri the fucking money and you hope he signs on after having what certainly looks like it could be a tumultuous season in Chicago with Jim Boylen.

Here are Lauri Markannen’s stats when LaVine is on and off the court. Markannen’s usage and true shooting BOTH increase when LaVine in off the court. Markkanen becoming a more efficient player on higher usage when LaVine — a player getting paid big money to be a number one option and supposedly creating shot gravity — is sitting is very concerning for Chicago. I sure hope they are dumb and trade Markannen and not LaVine, because the ball will not stick at all with Ntilikina and Barrett running the show.

Shwinnypooh: For the record, I always look at Doug’s junk that he sends you.

Stingy: I’m glad we agree that it’s junk.

Shwinnypooh: I mostly agree with you here though. I really like Markkanen, and if GarPax were still calling the shots they’d be in face-saving survival mode, so throwing Lauri under the bus in a deal that nets a couple of late firsts where they could trash him on the way out would be on the table. In this scenario? Not so much.

Then, like you said, is Chicago going to be motivated by the sixth pick for Lauri straight up? Probably not, and even if I splash the pot whenever the fuck I please, I’m not into giving up more than that for a guy with his injury concerns whose value remains more in theory than reality.

The only realistic chance I could see of getting Lauri then would be if the Reinsdorfs are still obsessed with saving money, and would like to get off, say, Otto Porter Jr.’s money. Would you trade the pick AND eat that $28.5m expiring for Markkanen? I would, but it’d seem with a new sheriff in town for the Bulls, they may be less motivated by that.

I also agree that keeping Randle and Portis around for another year isn’t the worst thing in the world. Randle’s clunky, but he’s better than what you could deal him for, still relatively young, on a team-friendly deal, and is a peyote inspired “I should kick out quicker instead of waiting for and spinning into double and triple teams” realization away from a valuable offensive step forward.

Porpoise, similarly, is in the boat of the relatively young. A coach who’d roast him every time he forces a shitty post-up and get him to instead lean into the more useful and complementary components of his game as a screen-and-pop player will turn him into a rotation player truly worth a damn. Of course, bringing him back at a reduced salary instead of picking up the $15.5 million option would be nice, too.

I don’t think the big moves the Knicks need to become good are really available this summer, or make sense for where they are at this stage in the development of their young core. If Leon Rose can hold Dolan’s thirst in check for a year, the Knicks would be better served maintaining some base level of continuity instead of another summer of churning the roster for the sake of it.

Stingy: Not to mention the revolving door for the coaching staff. It is hard being a Knicks fan.