Andy Larsen: Lauri Markkanen trade talks reveal just how stuck the Utah Jazz are right now

Multiple media reports say that the Jazz are considering trade offers for their All-Star. How did we get here, and what happens now?

“We’re ready to go big game hunting.”

That’s been the defining quote of the Utah Jazz’s offseason, the standout message from CEO Danny Ainge’s news conference in the days after a dismal 2023-24 season ended in April. But it’s worth looking at the full context of the quote as we evaluate what’s happened so far, and what’s apparently occurring: trade talks involving Jazz star Lauri Markkanen.

“I think that our objective is to find a player or two and we’re ready to roll. We’re ready to go big game hunting. And that hasn’t happened in the last two years. But if we start all over, then we’re three years, possibly, or four years, from being anywhere. We feel like we’re closer than that. We have a chance. I mean, we’re going all in this summer to try to figure out what we can do to get better,” Ainge said.

“When I say all-in, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to throw all our chips in and like championship or bust. I’m saying our mindset is that we’re going only to try to win. That’s our only objective ‘til we get to July. And if we don’t land anything, we don’t make any deals, we don’t land anything — then our direction could change that moment, and (we’d) wait ‘til the next time that we can try to build a roster. Does that make sense?”

Well, it’s July. It appears the Jazz’s direction has changed.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said the teams negotiating with the Jazz believe they will trade Markkanen. Adrian Wojnarowski, also from the worldwide leader, said the Jazz are listening to offers. And The Athletic’s Tony Jones said the Golden State Warriors’ offer, in particular, was strong enough that the Jazz would have to at least consider doing the deal. To be sure, any deal that sees the Jazz send out Markkanen sees them declining in the near future.

How did we get here?

Well, the Jazz went big game hunting, and they struck out.

The Jazz’s goals have been bold, sure. First, they hoped to acquire Brooklyn forward Mikal Bridges via trade. They then hoped that would give them a springboard to sign Clippers star Paul George.

The hunt was not successful. The Knicks’ offer on Bridges blew Utah’s offer away. Without Bridges, George had no reason to join the 31-win Jazz; even with him, it would have been difficult to beat the Sixers’ maximum offer, thanks to legitimate MVP candidate Joel Embiid and All-Star Tyrese Maxey.

There’s also something called “the winner’s curse” to consider here. It’s a well-known phenomenon in competitive markets from oil leases to stock IPOs, and its lessons also apply to the NBA. Essentially, because there are multiple bidders in an auction, it’s very likely someone is going to overpay in order to actually win the item.

It’s fair to seriously ask: Would it actually have been good for the Jazz to win the Mikal Bridges sweepstakes, by paying a price greater than five first-round picks, one pick swap, and a player equivalent to Bojan Bogdanovic in exchange for a player who scored 15 points per game after the All-Star break last year? Likewise, would it actually have been wise for a rebuilding Jazz to give the 34-year-old, injury-prone George four years and $212 million, with a player option on the final year when he’s 38 years old for $56 million?

I argue it wouldn’t have been.

But while I can defend the Jazz losing out on the big game as a net positive, I can’t really defend the process used. For the last two seasons, the Jazz have existed in limbo. They’ve avoided being competitive by being sellers at the deadline, but avoided tanking by making buys like John Collins and extending Jordan Clarkson. The only way that strategy makes sense is if you quickly add talent and escape mediocrity.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz host the Los Angeles Lakers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

The Jazz never really had a chance to do that other than via hope and prayer. Hoping a star the likes of George chooses to move to Utah? Praying Luka Doncic gets mad at his management in Dallas? Hoping a competitor the likes of Jrue Holiday will prefer a trade to Utah over the chance to win a championship with Boston? Praying the league keeps their bids for Bridges low?

It’s been wishcasting, not good management.

As a result, at this point, it’s very difficult to see the Jazz being competitive for a playoff spot in 2024-25.

Now, the Jazz have a decision to make on Markkanen. Ironically, he’s the perfect Utah star: a 27-year-old who truly loves living in our state. He loves the climate, loves the outdoors (hiking and even disc golf), prioritizes his family, and doesn’t drink. On the court, he’s malleable enough to fit with any imaginable co-star.

It’s just that the 8-10 wins he’s giving the Jazz per season look like the difference between the Jazz being in position to draft Duke’s Cooper Flagg, a likely future All-NBAer, or BYU’s Egor Demin — a promising player but probably not a future NBA All-Star.

There are only two reasonable paths to take from here; both involve risk. One path is to keep Markkanen via a renegotiation and extension this summer, keeping him on the roster for the future. The Jazz would risk staying in limbo, but perhaps through a combination of strategic resting and jettisoning of other good players they could remain in a reasonably good lottery position. After all, the Western Conference looks like a gauntlet; the Jazz are projected to finish 14th even with their current roster. Maybe they could compete for a Play-In Tournament spot.

The other path? Trade Markkanen to the highest bidder, and take those “winner’s curse” overpayment assets to the future. His trade value is unlikely to get higher, frankly, and the five picks or more the Jazz get in return could set up a true contention window.

However, the Jazz would be, in Ainge’s words, three or four years away from being anywhere.

I suppose it’s still possible that Ainge pulls a rabbit out of a hat here somehow, points his gun at it, and takes home his trophy. But as of now, the Jazz’s hunting efforts have been fruitless, setting up a bleak decision for the Jazz and their fans. At this point, which option you choose isn’t really about which is the good move for the Jazz now; it’s about which move is least bad for them.

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