Utah Jazz: The case for, and against, free agent Lauri Markkanen

Lauri Markkanen vs Utah Jazz (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)
Lauri Markkanen vs Utah Jazz (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Utah Jazz
Lauri Markkanen (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports) /

The case for the Utah Jazz signing Lauri Markkanen

In a sense, the case for the Utah Jazz pursuing Markkanen is pretty simple: he’s available, and he’s really good.

If that feels a bit reductive, that’s because it is. In reality, Markkanen’s fit with the Jazz is due for scrutiny. That’s not the same as saying it’s untenable, either. Markkanen’s stock has slipped (if not nosedived) over the past two seasons, but this is still a player who, over his sophomore season in 2018-19, averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 36% on 6.3 three-point attempts per game.

The concerns with Markkanen revolve around his foot speed, and his defense. The Utah Jazz just might be a team equipped to mask both shortcomings for the offensively talented combo big.

Quin Snyder’s offensive attack ranked just 18th in pace across the NBA last season, at 98.5. In 2019-20, his group ranked 23rd by the same measure at 98.6. Snyder’s offense is not predicated on beating the defense down the floor early to set up offense. Instead, his units are perfectly content to set up elaborate halfcourt offensive sets based on off-ball screens, cuts and motion.

Markkanen, a 7 footer with bonafide three-point range, could feast offensively in lineups either alongside Gobert, or in five-out units as the Utah Jazz’s center. His relative lack of pacing should not be a concern for Salt Lake City’s finest. His defensive shortcomings may be a different story.

The advanced metrics available on Markkanen’s defense reflect a limited, but not unsalvageable, player. Last season, Chicago was able to field some decent defensive lineups with Markkanen sharing the floor with Thaddeus Young: per CleaningtheGlass, their opponent field goal percentage on shots-at-the-rim with those two sharing the front court ranged from the 68th to the 89th percentile.

Meanwhile, their interior stopping powers looked diminished when Markkanen shared the floor with anybody else, dropping to the 32nd percentile with Wendell Carter Jr., for example. So, what does this mean for the Utah Jazz?

The Jazz don’t roster a player specifically comparable to Young, in-so-far as he is one of the league’s most versatile defenders, able to cover ground on the perimeter or in the paint. On the other hand, they wouldn’t be pairing Markkanen with anyone as inexperienced as Carter Jr. on a regular basis, either.

Based on the physical profile of a 7 foot, 240 pound big man with somewhat limited mobility, it seems safer to hope for Markkanen to take a step forward in rim protection than perimeter defense. As such, he may not be an ideal defensive pairing with Rudy Gobert, but on the other hand, there may not be a player in the league more equipped to cover up Markkanen’s deficiencies. Plus, one wonders if the offensive dividends of such modernized twin-tower looks could make any defensive limitations worthwhile in situational lineups.

Markkanen could play a dual big role for the Utah Jazz, likely coming off the bench while still finding close to 30 minutes a night at both the 5 and 4 positions. The Jazz would boast arguably the best second unit in the NBA, and Markkanen would find himself in his first winning environment with an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a larger, longer-term contract.

What could go wrong?