The Utah Jazz embraced the tank with open arms. They made it a lovely pot roast, tucked it into bed, read it “Goodnight Moon,” and kissed it on the forehead.
What other choice did they have after trading away two multi-time All-Stars? Rudy Gobert went to Minnesota for a hefty package of role players and draft compensation, while Donovan Mitchell went to Cleveland for nothing short of the same. They were ready to dive head-first into a bucket of lottery balls and go after a top-2 pick in one of the more intriguing drafts in quite some time.
At least … that’s what we thought.
Three weeks into the season, the Jazz hold the second-best record in the NBA. Yes, you read that right. The same organization that just traded away a three-time DPOY and 26-year-old three-time All-Star for a combined seven first-round picks has a record of 10-3. They have already beaten Western Conference playoff staples like the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies twice. We’ve also seen them take down both Zion Williamson and Trae Young. It is one of the most mind-boggling starts to the year for a team that I can remember, especially since it’s largely thanks to a familiar face.
Utah’s best player is hands down Lauri Markkanen. The former No. 7-overall pick is currently playing like the foundational piece the Bulls hoped to receive as part of their 2017 Jimmy Butler trade. He’s averaging 22.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on a highly efficient 52.7 percent clip from the field. Each number mark a career-high.
He already has three 30-point games under his belt, which included his season-high 32 points on Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks. He sank six of his eight 3-pointers and paced his team toward a six-point victory.
Now, to be sure, Bulls fans have seen Markkanen put together some impressive stretches before. Everyone and their mother remembers his mythical February of 2019 where he averaged 26.5 points over an 11-game stretch. He dropped 30+ points in five of those games and also scooped up 12.6 rebounds a night. So while no one is saying he’s incapable of posting the numbers we’ve seen in Utah, did anyone think he would?
Markkanen’s tenure in Chicago ended on a sour note. He found himself averaging career lows under the new regime and ending up in a reserve role. As Zach LaVine continued to prove he was ready to win, investing further in Markkanen felt somewhat counterintuitive, so the Bulls sent him to Cleveland in a three-team deal for Portland’s Derrick Jones Jr. and a first-round pick.
“I’m the person who always looks in the mirror first and tries to figure it out,” Markkanen recently told The Athletic’s Shams Charania. “Then, when it was hard, I think I put even more pressure on myself to make the next play. If you don’t get as many shots or whatever, you better make these shots count or whatever. It was a vicious circle to try to figure it out. It was a tough year, and I think it got to a point where it wasn’t that fun anymore – the last two years in Chicago.”
To The Finnisher’s credit, he was able to carve out a niche with a better-than-expected Cavaliers team. He played in a jumbo starting lineup at small forward and averaged 14.7 points a night thanks to plenty of catch-and-shoot looks and advantageous matchups. With a chance to trade for Mitchell, however, Cleveland sent Markkanen to his third NBA team.
And, well, I guess they’re right … the third time is the charm.
Markkanen is flashing almost every skillset that initially had an organization like the Bulls drooling. He’s attacking off the dribble with his better-than-expected ball-handling, backing down guys in the post, hitting fadeaway jumpers, and draining shots behind the arc.
I mean, just take a look at some highlights:
Even better, the seven-footer who used to act allergic to contact and rebounding has completely disappeared. He’s now averaging a career-high in offensive boards and getting the free-throw line at a higher rate than ever before. Everything about it has been beautiful … and … well … kind of annoying.
Markkanen is now two teams removed and six seasons into his NBA career, so playing the “what if” game probably isn’t a smart idea. But it seriously is hard not to wonder where this version of him was in Chicago. He had plenty of freedom to play his game and grow into a more consistent player, so why did it end so poorly?
I guess it just speaks to how dysfunctional the previous regime was. The lack of true player development and the ugly coaching change surely stunted his growth, as did the likely emergence of an All-Star player in Zach LaVine. Could there have been a way for the Bulls to tap back into this side of Markkanen’s game? Maybe. But sometimes fresh starts are also for the better, and I think Markkanen has needed that in his career to actually grow into the player we see today.
Now, I say all of this knowing darn well that we’re only 13 games into the season. Markkanen can still fall back down to earth and play like nothing more than a glorified role-player. But, if he does stay on this new upward trajectory, I’ll just choose to be happy for him. It’s a pretty cool late-career turnaround, even if it does sting a tiny bit.