Grades: Cavaliers trade Andrew Bynum, draft picks to Bulls for Luol Deng
The Cavaliers traded center Andrew Bynum and multiple draft picks to the Bulls for forward Luol Deng on Monday night.
In addition to Bynum, the Bulls will receive the Kings’ 2014 first-round pick (top-12 protected), the Trail Blazers’ 2015 and 2016 second-round picks, and the right to swap 2015 first-round picks with the Cavaliers (if Cleveland’s selection falls between 15-30).
Let’s break down the deal with grades for both sides.
Cleveland Cavaliers — Grade: B-plus
There is little to question about Cleveland’s acquisition of Deng and everything to question about what comes next. Re-signing Deng, and doing so on reasonable terms, could prove to be a very difficult and/or costly task, and a big-picture understanding of this trade can’t be realized until the ink is dry on Deng’s next contract.
For now, we can only assess the short-term implications of this move, ignoring the possibility that Deng could leave for nothing as a free agent in the summer or the harm that could be done by signing a 29-year-old (come April) forward who has logged nearly 23,000 minutes to the monster extension that he covets. With that in mind, the short-term implications of the move are overwhelmingly positive, even if the ceiling on Cleveland’s best-case scenario isn’t extraordinarily high.
At 11-23 and with Bynum’s contract guarantee date looming, Cleveland could have simply waived the center, saved itself the $6.3 million remaining on his contract and continued to putter along toward the stacked 2014 draft. That would have been a defensible strategy, but a fifth straight lottery appearance is not what owner Dan Gilbert (and his camera-friendly son Nick) had in mind when they won the rights to the No. 1 pick last year. The mandate then was clearly “playoffs or bust,” and this trade sends a message to Cavaliers fans that the postseason goal remains despite a crummy start to the season, which has been filled with locker-room drama, postgame angst from coach Mike Brown, questions surrounding Bynum’s health and attitude, and the league’s third-worst offense.
Deng is practically the prototype solution for what has ailed Cleveland. He fits into its biggest position of need: small forward. He brings much-needed virtues: dependability and professionalism. He’s a two-time All-Star, a no-nonsense veteran, a defensive force and a more-than-capable offensive player. He also has experience playing with a ball-dominant lead guard (Kyrie Irving will sub in nicely for Derrick Rose). His contract ($14.3 million this season) is fair for his services and currently carries no long-term pain. Add that all up, and he’s a very logical rental for a team whose hopeless season has shown a need for a legitimate boost.
One might argue that the biggest price Cleveland paid here was the cash savings for Bynum that it passed on to Chicago, as the draft picks aren’t much to write home about. The Sacramento pick is top-12 protected in 2014, top-10 protected in 2015 and top-10 protected in 2016, before it converts into a second-round pick. That pick is virtually guaranteed to remain Sacramento’s this year, and there’s a solid chance — given the Kings’ outlook relative to the rest of the Western Conference — that it doesn’t convey in either of the next two seasons.
Meanwhile, the right to swap 2015 first-round picks is protected against disaster: The worst-case scenario there is that Cleveland gives up the No. 16 pick for the No. 30 pick, and it’s far more likely that no swap takes place or that we’re talking about a matter of a few slots. That leaves the two second-round picks and the extra salary owed to Deng this season. It’s a cost but not a very steep one, and certainly one worth bearing if the other alternative is continuing through a bleak season. Basketball motivations can trump financial ones here because Gilbert has shown a willingness to spend on his roster and because Cleveland is well under the luxury tax, even after this move.
In the cramped East standings, the addition of Deng could theoretically carry Cleveland from its No. 13 slot all the way up to, say, the No. 5 or No. 6 seed. After all, the Cavaliers are only 4½ games behind Washington (14-17), which is fifth. Deng’s addition as a hole-plugging, stabilizing force should affect the Cavaliers much like the Wizards’ trade for center Marcin Gortat has this season. Proven commodities are worth their weight in gold, especially on young rosters that lack depth.
Where does this ultimately lead? Doesn’t the Cavaliers’ absolute best-case scenario for 2014 amount to the 2011-12 Sixers, who squeezed by the Bulls in the first round before being bounced in the conference semifinals? That might count as a success for Cleveland, given its rough recent history, but that shouldn’t be enough for this to be considered a “home run” move.
Looking ahead, if Deng decides to leave Cleveland, much like Andre Iguodala left Denver last summer, the Cavaliers will be pretty much back to where they were before signing Bynum last summer, minus a few second-round picks and a shot at Sacramento’s pick. That’s not much downside. The real lurking threat here is making a giant multi-year offer to Deng. USA Today Sports reported that he’s seeking a contract in the $15 million-per-year range, a price point should be too high for everyone, Cleveland included. Yahoo! Sports reported that Deng rejected the Bulls’ three-year, $30 million offer. He can be expected to command significantly more than that next summer, but the Cavaliers must exercise restraint in their negotiating with Deng, considering his miles, his injury history and the potential for age-related decline in the latter half of his next contract.
There is one final consideration: Cleveland’s 2014 draft pick. If the season ended today, Cleveland would have the league’s fifth-worst record, giving it an excellent shot at acquiring a blue-chip prospect in this year’s draft. A push up the standings, of course, will result in a slide down — and possibly out — of the lottery. Is renting Deng worth compromising a shot at Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker? No. It’s too early to throw that pick away yet, though, as Cleveland will still need to play its way out of the Central Division basement by enjoying good health and reeling off enough victories to break out of the pack. If something does go wrong between now and March, or if the new-look team simply can’t put it together, it can always massage the final few weeks of the season in an effort to regain some Ping-Pong balls.
Chicago Bulls — Grade: B-minus
Moving Deng, a franchise fixture since 2004, is a momentous decision for the Bulls. It seems reasonable to conclude, given Deng’s ability and ties to the organization, that this trade doesn’t happen right now if: A) Rose is healthy; and B) Chicago possessed a reasonable degree of certainty that it could re-sign Deng next summer.
Reports and whispers about the distance between the Bulls and Deng have existed for months, and they have intensified in recent weeks. Those rumors aren’t a smoking gun, but they do suggest that the two sides didn’t see totally eye-to-eye, and that is a major problem because of Chicago’s cap position.
Before the trade, the Bulls were deep into the luxury tax this season, and they were also committed to expensive deals for Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson next summer. If Deng were willing to come back at the $10 million tag Chicago wanted, the Bulls, who aren’t exactly hurting for money, probably could have talked themselves into taking another shot at a championship run with that core led by a healthy Rose. If not, though, the Bulls were looking at major tax penalties this year, next year and a tough spot in 2015, when they would need to find a replacement for Boozer without much cap flexibility. Life under those conditions would be tough even if all of their key players were healthy; Rose, whose contract runs through 2017, stands as an unknown at this point, making such commitments tougher to swallow.
Waiving Bynum will save the Bulls from paying the non-guaranteed $6.3 million owed to him for the rest of the season, and it also should take them out of the luxury-tax territory this season, offering significant savings that could top $10 million. Bulls fans will lament the departure of a franchise cornerstone for financial reasons, and rightfully so, as there’s no dodging the emotions wrapped up in a decade-long relationship between player and community.
At the same time, Chicago is just 14-18 this season and, in the wake of Rose’s latest knee injury, possesses the league’s second-worst offense. The preseason championship aspirations are long gone, and it rarely makes sense to pay luxury-tax prices for lottery-level results. Recent reports have indicated that Boozer’s $16.8 million salary could be released using the amnesty clause next summer, putting the Bulls in position to build around a Rose/Noah/Gibson/Jimmy Butler core with more than $10 million in cap space. Chicago could also potentially have three 2014 first-round picks: its own pick, Charlotte’s pick (if it falls outside the top 10) and Sacramento’s (if it falls outside the top 12).
Even if both Charlotte and Sacramento hold on to their respective picks, Chicago’s own pick is now much more intriguing than it was before Monday’s trade. Just as Deng’s arrival could help send Cleveland up the standings, his departure should push Chicago down the standings. The Bulls have been noticeably better on both sides of the ball with Deng (97.9 offensive rating; 95.7 defensive rating) than without him (94.2 offensive rating, 100.3 defensive rating), and coach Tom Thibodeau will have no choice but to play Mike Dunleavy and rookie Tony Snell monster minutes. Although “tanking” is a profanity to many NBA fans and it surely isn’t in Thibodeau’s DNA, the best-case scenario for the Bulls’ season at this point is to lose as many games as possible. Landing Parker, a Chicago native, or another top-five-caliber player would make for a well-timed, if unexpected, infusion of A-list talent, and it would go a long way to healing the wounds created by Deng’s departure.
The significant financial impact of this trade, a good chance at a high lottery pick this year, two second-round picks and the possibility of a future first-round pick just doesn’t quite seem like enough for Deng, even when taking his contract uncertainty into account. Chicago made a defensible, business-minded decision that opens up options for the future, but the team did so without landing an asset worthy of any hype and it settled for such a scenario despite having months of advance warning about Deng’s opinion of his own market worth. That leaves the Bulls where they have often been: square in the cross hairs of those who suggest they pay too much attention to the bottom line. The best way to salvage this is to embrace the tank.