The Chicago Bulls dealt All-Star forward Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers early Tuesday, as was first reported by Shams Charania of Real GM, for Andrew Bynum and what is being called a bevy of draft picks. Bynum’s non-guaranteed contract won’t make it to sundown, even in these short January days, and the collection of picks will likely only whittle down to a pair of second-round choices. Cleveland is making this trade in order to secure an All-Star, one of the NBA’s top two-way players. The Bulls are making this deal because of financial concerns, only.
Which is fine, because paying the luxury tax for a team that is only on pace to win 36 games is hard to stomach. In dealing Deng’s $14.3 million salary and waiving Bynum by early evening on Tuesday, the Bulls will lop off about $8.1 million in payroll, nestling them under the luxury tax by a few hundred thousand dollars, saving them from paying that penalty for consecutive years, and preventing the team from working their way into the dreaded “repeater tax,” which turns the one-time dollar-for-dollar tax into something far more severe as the years move along.
In Deng, the Cavaliers acquire one of the league’s top wing defenders, a player who often doesn’t need the ball to score, and someone they can count on for extended periods of play. The Cavaliers are three games out of the pathetic Eastern Conference playoff bracket, working with an 11-23 record and the NBA’s third-worst offense. After acquiring four lottery picks over the last three NBA drafts, including two top overall picks, the onus is on the Cavaliers to make some sort of attempt at working into that playoff bracket, and they’ve actually added money to their payroll in that pursuit.
Adding Bynum to the roster, a year after he sat out the entire 2012-13 season with the Philadelphia 76ers, was always going to be a risk. It’s somewhat creditable that the Cavaliers couched Bynum’s contract so that they could dump the center should he not work out, but it’s also telling that they just about paid him the league’s average salary for 480 minutes of mostly terrible basketball. Couple that with Anthony Bennett’s almost historically disappointing first season as the top overall pick, Kyrie Irving’s regression and the tumultuous year of fellow lottery selection Dion Waiters, and you have a frustrating team from stem to stern. And at the top of this is owner Dan Gilbert, who famously promised that his Cavaliers would win a title before LeBron James would in Miami, a promise that has been laughably traipsed over twice in the years since 2010.
Players don’t come more respectable than Deng, but his presence isn’t exactly a playoff promise. Luol is in his prime and coming through with a career year, but he’ll also have to adapt to a new — and very stagnant — offensive system in Cleveland on the fly. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau encourages movement and cutting away from the ball, while Mike Brown’s offensive schemes are notoriously lacking. Deng is averaging 19 points on a respectable 45 percent shooting mark so far, getting to the line far more than he’s used to, but he’ll have to work extra hard in Cleveland to pull those numbers off.
That extra effort has never been a problem for Deng, which is part of the reason that Chicago was so hesitant to keep him around past 2013-14. The Bulls, above all, recognized that they’ve basically used this guy all up.
Deng has played an average of 38.7 minutes per game over the last five seasons, and when you pair that number with several long playoff runs and the fact that he came into the NBA at age 19 (immediately jumping into a significant rotation role in his rookie year), you have a player who might be working as one of the oldest 28-year-olds in NBA history. A free agent following this year at age 29, Luol and the Bulls could not come to terms on a contract extension prior to the season, and he recently rejected a three-year, $30 million extension. After playing on a broken leg and infamously being sold out by the Bulls following a spinal tap last spring, Deng wanted a long-term extension that approximated his current $14.3 million yearly salary.
We can’t blame him for that. We also can’t blame the Bulls for declining to pay Deng that sort of money as he eases into his declining years.
Don’t credit the Bulls for their draft haul, however. They’ll receive the Sacramento Kings’ 2014 first-round draft pick (currently slated to be fifth overall in this year’s boffo draft), but only if the Kings suddenly go on a run that almost takes them out of the draft lottery — hardly likely, as it’ll take about 46 wins to make the playoffs out West, and the Kings are only on pace for 26. Maybe they should trade Rudy Gay. That always seems to help.
Chicago has the right to swap picks with Cleveland if the Cavaliers make the playoffs in 2014-15, but while we respect the talent of Irving and potential presence of Deng, it’s not a given that they’ll be able to pull a playoff run out of this roster. Which is a shame, because Cleveland fans deserve so much better than what they’ve had to work through.
What Chicago will receive is a pair of second-round picks from the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015 and 2016, and with the Blazers currently tied for the league’s third-best record, those figure to be buried deep in the high 50s. Not exactly a haul.
No, Chicago made this trade to dump Deng’s contract, waive $6 million off of Bynum’s non-guaranteed deal, and get under the luxury tax. They’re not tanking — a team featuring workers like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and a coach like Tom Thibodeau can’t help but hustle their way toward wins — but they are saving money.
You can’t write that off, either. This can’t be criticized. Time and time again, the team’s parsimony has an excuse that once singularly identified, can’t really be called into question. The Bulls always get away with it. There’s always a reason. They’re so damn good at this.
As expected, the Bulls will dangle that carrot to their fans in the form of the usual tropes — potential picks from Sacramento (no way), Cleveland (not happening), Charlotte (less impressive by the year), cap space once Carlos Boozer is released this summer (assuming they’ll use it properly), and the potential for Nikola Mirotic to come over to join the team’s rotation. All with a healthy Derrick Rose working on the same sort of knee injury that has caused Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook to undergo three knee operations in eight months.
Cleveland’s future is just as dicey, because while they’ll likely try to save face and offer Deng as much money as they can this summer (which, again, we’re not sure Deng will be worth this sort of money as he enters his 30s starting in 2015), Luol will also have many suitors in what will be a player-friendly free-agent market in 2014. It’s true that Cleveland didn’t give up a whole hell of a lot to acquire Luol, but the team’s increasing desperation in the wake of potentially four lost seasons following LeBron’s departure is apparent.
This might be a win-win trade for both sides, but you wouldn’t exactly call either side happy with their lot in life right now.
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