While Zach LaVine rumors swirl, Lauri Markkanen says he wants to stay in Utah

Could LaVine find a home in L.A.? Do the Kings need to upgrade? And a conversation with the Utah Jazz All-Star forward.

Nearly every time a player of prominence who is represented by Klutch Sports founder Rich Paul becomes available on the NBA’s trade market, the narrative starts anew: They must be headed to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a popular conclusion for front-office executives and reporters to draw with Anthony Davis pushing his way there in the summer of 2019 to join the greatest Klutch Sports client of them all, LeBron James. Add in that the Lakers have a long history of frequently signing the agency’s players, and you start to understand the root of these frequent suspicions within the NBA.

But when that familiar storyline resurfaced last week about the Bulls’ Zach LaVine, with the Chicago Sun-Times reporting that “LaVine and his representation obviously want (the Lakers) because of the Klutch Sports connection,” Paul decided to push back on the widely held premise.

“It’s not one team,” Paul told The Athletic regarding the LaVine situation. “I don’t have a specific destination for Zach. I want what’s best for Zach and his family. When you have a guy playing the game, you want him to be able to play the game happy, whether that’s in Chicago or somewhere else.”

As Paul shared, he has clients on 24 of the 30 teams in the Association (including four on the current Lakers team). The point is that his agency didn’t grow to its current state by prioritizing one team over all others. As it relates to LaVine, who hasn’t played since Nov. 28 because of inflammation in his right foot and is expected to miss several more weeks, Paul said it remains to be seen if he’ll be on the move.

“In the event the Bulls decide they would like to go a different direction with the team, and it involves Zach, then I’m sure we’ll have conversations to get clarity on what’s best for both sides,” Paul said. “Until then, the goal is to get healthy and return ready to go.”

Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine (8) scores past Toronto Raptors' Gary Trent Jr. (33) during the first half of an NBA basketball In-Season Tournament game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

So where might he go?

Shams Charania reported on Dec. 11 that the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are expected to be suitors. However, obstacles exist with both of those possible trade partners.

For the Lakers, who are also known to have interest in the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso, a conversation with Chicago is likely to include a request for Austin Reaves (who isn’t eligible to be traded until Jan. 15). But by all indications, the Lakers remain as committed to Reaves as they were when they gave him a four-year, $56 million deal last summer.

Meanwhile, the Sixers have been studying the star player market closely ever since James Harden’s trade request in late June made it clear he was on the way out. Yet, while their focus might have been on an offense-first player like LaVine in the preseason, the unexpected improvement in their post-Harden offense makes it more likely they’ll target a high-end two-way player heading into the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

The Sixers (18-7, tied for second in the Eastern Conference), which are benefiting from the rise of fourth-year guard Tyrese Maxey and the MVP-caliber play of Joel Embiid, may also choose to wait to make any major moves until this summer. They’re slated to have approximately $55 million in salary-cap space. And at this rate, who could blame them?

Their net rating is a league-best 12.1 with the Celtics second at a distant 8.7. Their offense is tied with Indiana for the league’s best rating (121.9 points scored per 100 possessions) and is on pace to set a league record. The defense is fifth (109.8 points allowed per 100), up from eighth last season (112.7 points allowed per 100).

A King-sized decision

It’s no secret that the Sacramento Kings have an appetite — and the assets — to improve their roster. As Kings general manager Monte McNair explained so candidly in a mid-July interview with The Athletic, they entered this season with a two-pronged plan of sorts.

1. Develop this current group in the kind of way that looks as if it’s on the path to becoming a title contender.

2. If the progress wasn’t coming quickly enough for their liking, then they’d be well-positioned to analyze any opportunities to add a high-caliber player that came their way.

So with their 15-9 record, a fifth-place standing in the West and a net rating (17th) that should cause some concern within their walls, where does that leave them at this point? The interest in exploring upgrades is there, but it does not appear as if any of the well-publicized options are no-brainers. The problem, it seems, has everything to do with the likely price of doing business for these particular players.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) has his shot attempt blocked by Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis (10) as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

If they go for players like the Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby who have drawn interest from the Kings in the past, and who are headed for free agency this summer, then the massive cost of retaining them in the offseason would have a significant impact on what the Kings were willing to offer to acquire them in the first place. Siakam is on an expiring deal, and Anunoby is widely expected to decline his $19.9 million player option for next season. Those two particular prospects appear unlikely at the moment, but we still have a long way to go for the market to evolve. Anunoby, more specifically, does not appear to be of significant interest to the Kings.

Conversely, the choice to go for a player like LaVine, the two-time All-Star who has a combined $178 million left on his deal (including his player option worth $48.9 million in 2026-27), would come with a decreased willingness to put an exorbitant amount on the table because, well, his contract is quite hefty. Still, it’s worth highlighting that the Kings’ current roster focus appears to be on the value of (additional) shooting — and offense — above all else.

Their defense, which was a major emphasis during the offseason, is currently 15th in the league (up from 23rd last season). That improvement, it seems, is enough to turn the internal spotlight toward becoming even more explosive on the other end. And here’s where the irony comes into play.

For all the public focus on the prospect of James and Davis teaming up with LaVine with the Lakers, the overlooked part is that Kings star De’Aaron Fox is a major priority for Klutch Sports these days as well. Per league sources, LaVine would be very amenable to a Sacramento move that would make him Fox’s backcourt mate.

With all of those possible scenarios in mind, this much seems clear: The notion of the Kings offering second-year forward Keegan Murray seems even more unlikely than before after his 47-point, 12-three-pointer outing against Utah on Saturday night. That was the widely held consensus even before he put together the best outing of his young career.

Lauri Markkanen unplugged

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) is double-teamed by Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) forward Keita Bates-Diop (21), in NBA action between the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, at the Delta Center, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

Lauri Markkanen doesn’t want to go anywhere. Let’s get that part clear at the start.

After talking with the 26-year-old All-Star forward on Saturday morning, not long before his Utah Jazz (9-17) got blasted by the Kings in a 125-104 loss in Sacramento, the message could not be mistaken.

“I just want to emphasize,” he said at the end of our 10-minute chat, “that I really believe in what we’re building here with the Jazz.”

Translation: He’s hoping no team comes Utah’s way with the kind of Godfather offer that leads to another relocation.

From talking to Jazz officials, the recent Yahoo! Sports report about Markkanen’s possible availability is a reflection of a modern NBA reality. When you’re not playing like a contender, it only makes sense to leave the phone lines open for discussion about all of your players. Even if the best one you have — in this case, Markkanen — continues to draw rave reviews from the organization and is seen as the sort of talent who is worthy of building around.

As Markkanen surely knows, his below-market contract makes those sorts of discussions even more impossible for Jazz CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge to avoid. Markkanen is owed $17.2 million this season and has only $6 million of his $18 million for next season guaranteed. If you’re a high-level team looking for a quality addition, it doesn’t get much better than a young talent like Markkanen, who is averaging 23.4 points and 8.4 rebounds this season on that sort of deal.

For Markkanen’s part, he wants to keep improving in this Jazz landscape that proved to be so beneficial last season. After getting dealt from Cleveland to Utah as part of the Donovan Mitchell deal on Sept. 3, 2022, he had a career season and earned an invite to the Salt Lake City All-Star weekend. Now, after spending much of his summer fulfilling his military duties with his home country of Finland, he wants to settle in for the long haul with this Jazz group that is in the thick of a rebuilding stage.

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

So how are you feeling about the Jazz experience these days?

I try to look at the big picture. Obviously, we haven’t had the easiest start to the year, but I think it’s about keeping that long-term mindset in mind and trying to get better every day. Of course, we want to win every game, but even when you lose I think there’s things that we can learn and get better at. It’s not the easiest start, but everybody’s being positive still and working on the team stuff and individually as well. We just have to try to get more together and hopefully, we can grab a couple of these wins.

When you look back at last year, was that a professional high for you?

It was a really fun year, and I think I learned a lot as the year went on. … I got to do more stuff than I was able to do in the past, and I think I just learned a lot. Of course statistically and accolade-wise, it was my best year, too. So it was definitely a good feeling, and then you go into the summer and try to work on your game and be better. You know the game planning and everything is, so …

You’re not gonna sneak up on people.

Yeah, and I try to stay positive about it, to look at it as a fun challenge that’s gonna make me a better player. It’s not supposed to be perfect right now. This is the first time I get to do more of this stuff, so rather than getting frustrated by your turnovers or missed threes or whatever, you get to learn from that. I look at it that way. It’s gonna make me a better player.

A quick confession here: I completely forgot about Markkanen’s military experience during the summer when I asked the following question. In the end, that oversight made for a comical moment.

So I wonder within that, where did you spend your offseason, training-wise?

In the military (laughs).

That’s right. I’m sorry, man, I had read all about it but blanked on that front.

It was a lot of that. But toward the end of the summer, I stayed in Helsinki (Finland’s capital) mostly. And after I got done there, I went to training camp for the World Cup, so it was a busy summer.

So how long was the military stretch, and what did that entail?

I went in five days after the regular season ended (April 14). I can’t remember exactly my last day, but our (World Cup) training camp started in late July. Everything was in Helsinki. So there was a lot of that during the summer, and so obviously it required a little bit of a (commitment).

What did your days look like? Paint that picture for me a little bit.

Get up at six in the morning. Go eat. Do some of the teaching stuff for the actual … combat training. So I did that in the morning, and it goes until whatever (time). If we were staying at the base, I would say our days were done around 6-6:30 (p.m.). So then there was a weight room and stuff and you get to do your workouts and whatever you have energy after the long day to do. Of course, there were times when we spent the whole week in the woods or whatever. Obviously, the days look a little different when you’re not able to go work out at six o’clock. So you try to combine all of that with the World Cup. It took a lot, mentally, to (find) the energy to do longer days. It’s something we have to do, but you don’t want to forget about basketball. You try to sneak your workouts in and stuff like that.

Can you play any basketball during that time?

Yeah, a little bit, but not a ton. A lot of weekends we got to go home and that’s when I’d play basketball. Then obviously when we started the World Cup practice, that’s when we went at it every day. After that, it was mostly basketball and I think I was able to do my workouts and get better.

How often were you in the woods for multiple days?

I think we did three camps, which were like four and a half days in the woods. Your day is over at 11, midnight, then you put up your tent and get right to it at six in the morning.

That’s something else. Respect for doing that, and I appreciate you sharing that.

So what was your original question?

Well, I was trying to get a sense of how you saw Salt Lake City and if you stayed there to train in the summer. Obviously, I forgot about your whole military experience.

Yeah, yeah, I came (to Salt Lake City) in late September.

You like it quite a bit out there, yeah?

Oh, yeah. Love it. So we’d like to be there. We like the environment. It’s a pretty comfortable place to be.

With all that in mind, and considering it’s the time of year when people end up talking about trade rumors and making players nervous along the way, how are you handling this time of year?

Whatever happens happens, you know?

Are you getting any messaging on that front from the organization?

No, I haven’t talked to anyone. Obviously, you see the stuff online or whatever and …

I mean, you’re a very good player. It’s not exactly surprising that teams would love to come after you.

Yeah, I look at that as a compliment to you that teams are interested in you and it’s a credit to what you’ve done in the past and how you work.

And your contract is team-friendly and you’re underpaid.

Yeah. And I’ve been traded, I guess, technically three times with draft night included. Sometimes I knew about it. Sometimes I didn’t. So I kind of learned the business side of basketball. I’ve kind of learned to just go day by day and really put the work in and try to play to the best of my abilities and whatever happens happens, really. Like I said, I love being in Utah and it’s a compliment of what you’ve done in the past (that teams have interest). We’ll see. But yeah, I just want to emphasize that I really believe in what we’re building here with the Jazz. Go day by day. Do your best. That’s all you can do.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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