In the earliest of hours on Tuesday morning, perhaps just as Jameis Winston was spraying his first bottles of sparkling water at the Rose Bowl (he's only 20, people!), the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off a deal that puts in no uncertain terms where these two franchises stand.
Luol Deng, the longest-tenured Bull who helped usher in the first era of competence post-Michael Jordan, was shipped to Cleveland in exchange for Andrew Bynum and a whole host of picks. Cleveland sent a protected first-rounder leftover from the laughable J.J. Hickson-Omri Casspi trade, the ability to swap non-lottery picks in 2015 and two second-round picks along with one disgruntled 7-footer.
Bynum, of course, was not traded for as a player—but a mere commodity. The Bulls officially announced they had waived Bynum by midafternoon, skirting under the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline where his contract would have been guaranteed.
By releasing Bynum and shedding Deng's salary from its cap hold, Chicago will save about $20 million—enough to take the team below the NBA luxury tax and help avoid the punitive repeater tax in the future.
There's a deluge of facts and figures we could go into with this trade. It's at least notable that, despite the Bulls being in the nation's third-biggest media market, they have paid the tax exactly once in their history (last year).
Why is it we don't mention Jerry Reinsdorf, who once drove consummate professional Scottie Pippen up a wall with his penny-pinching, in the same sentence as Robert Sarver—the go-to punching bag of NBA cheapness?
One could also take a deep dive into the Bynum contract, a golden goose for Cleveland that has been the envy of league executives. In an era where everyone minus Mikhail Prokhorov seems obsessed with his tax bill, could these deals become more prevalent? Or is Bynum's unique combination of injuries and sulky body language a truly unique situation?
Those are all interesting, worthy topics. When delving into the minutiae of the deal, though, the picture is painted of two franchises on wildly different, but equally uncertain paths.
As Zach Lowe pointed out in his Grantland column, this deal works in desperate accordance to the Cavs' widely publicized goal of making the playoffs this year. No, not next year. This freaking year.
Backed by an entourage that would make Vincent Chase look friendless, Dan Gilbert and his staff came to the 2013 NBA draft lottery and told everyone who would listen they wouldn't be back. This was their last day of high school; they're leaving the state for college and double middle fingers to all the rest of you bottom feeders.
Cleveland, emboldened by its second lottery triumph since the King abdicated his throne, partied all through the night, making it rain with pingpong balls and reasonable-interest loans.
Then the season started, and suddenly the party bus started feeling like public transit. Cleveland, which also inexplicably gave Mike Brown $20 million to return as coach, is 11-23 going into Tuesday night. It holds a league-worst road mark (2-15), sits third-worst in offensive efficiency and has generally been racked with the strife typical of a young team not living up to wildly unrealistic expectations.
Anthony Bennett's first season is a dumpster fire. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters have the on-court chemistry of Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Brown has all of the inspirational charisma of Bobby Valentine. The energy has been so toxic, you half expect fans to enter Quicken Loans Arena wearing hazmat suits.
So, naturally, rather than tread water for one more season and hope for the lottery gods to strike once more in the best draft class since 2003, Gilbert doubled down on his pontification by signing off on this deal.
That's to say nothing negative about Deng, about whom more anon. The Cavs nabbed one of the most respectable players and men in the NBA, someone whose good nature will be a welcome change in the Cleveland locker room. He's great.
It's clear, nonetheless, Cleveland lacks a cogent plan, at least not one befitting itself to long-term contention—and certainly not one that will make the Cavaliers a more attractive franchise to prospective free agents. This was a short-term fix made by a frenzied owner who cares more about realizing his latest Comic Sans bluster than the actual health of his franchise.
It is an exercise in classic Dan Snyderdom.
In a certain sense, the Cavs' plan will probably work. Their small forward spot was a nightly calamity, and now they have one of the league's best half-dozen or so players at the position.
Deng is a great wing defender whose yearly offensive stat line remains a bastion of consistency. And, with Derrick Rose out of the lineup, he's developed into an underrated passer. Considering the historic putridity of the Eastern Conference, the Cavs will probably finish among the top eight—right in time to get steamrolled by the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round.
Chris Grant, the team's increasingly embattled general manager, indicated the Cavaliers didn't just sign Deng for a rental. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, the two sides could agree to an extension anytime between now and June 30, but Grant seemed to indicate Cleveland will wait.
"We'd like to keep him here long-term," Grant said, per T.J. Zuppe of CBS Cleveland. "At 28 years old, we see him as part of our core and our youth moving forward. We'll get through the season and get to those conversations at the appropriate period of time."
That seems prudent, but the Cavs run the risk of compounding one shortsighted move with another: overpaying Deng in free agency. Cleveland, by giving up true draft-pick value to go along with Bynum's awesome contract, put itself in a situation where it cannot afford to lose Deng. I repeat: Can. Not. Afford. To. Lose. Deng.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported Deng refused a three-year, $30 million contract extension with the Bulls before the deal went down. That means a starting point in negotiations likely begins in the $12 million per season range and could jump even higher if Deng hits the open market and the free-agency class proves not as ripe with superstars as expected.
The Cavaliers acquired Deng's Bird rights with the deal, meaning they are the only team that can offer him a five-year deal. Would any smart franchise want to pay years four and five of a $60 million Luol Deng deal? Or even at $50 million? Deng is a good player now, but he's still a minus three-point shooter whose value mostly stems from his ability to hit tough mid-range shots and defend athletic wings.
I'm not sure age-33 or age-34 Deng will even be a replacement-level talent—let alone someone cashing in eight figures.
The Brooklyn Nets put themselves in a similar no-win situation with Gerald Wallace, compounding a stupid trade (the one that netted the Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard) with an even dumber $40 million contract. Sure, Brooklyn finagled its way out of the deal—in a trade with the Celtics that gave Boston every Nets pick from here until roughly 2185.
Does anyone have faith Gilbert won't do the same?
Let's travel a couple states west, because faith is also coming in less supply in Chicago. The Bulls' motivation here was strictly financial and wholly understandable if you remove emotion (usually a good idea).
Unlike Grant, Bulls general manager Gar Forman recognized his team was going nowhere and pulled the trigger on a move that made basketball and financial sense. Reinsdorf will get to pocket an ungodly revenue, while the team gets to work on a retooling that became necessary when Rose suffered another catastrophic knee injury.
The Bulls may wind up making another move or two, with Kirk Hinrich being a potential target for guard-needy clubs. But the overarching expectation here is this roster will stay mostly unchanged the rest of the way, play horribly and net Chicago a mid-lottery pick in the best draft in a decade.
Most metrics point toward this plan working. Deng was a lynchpin to everything the Bulls did on both ends of the floor, their leading scorer and a guy who spent a ridiculous amount of time extending his body to the breaking point. The Bulls have outscored opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with Deng on the floor and been outscored by more than six points with him on the bench.
Most of that dip comes defensively, where Chicago regresses from Indiana-esque to merely very good.
Deng's absence on the offensive end, however, will arguably be more crippling. Chicago is already the NBA's third-worst offense. With Deng on the bench, the Bulls score 94.2 points per 100 possessions—two points worse than anyone else.
Deng is also the second-most frequent pick-and-roll ball-handler within Chicago's bland offense, is its most frequent transition scorer and is one of only three Bulls who rank in the 50th percentile or better in points per possession overall, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
The Bulls are going to be a terrible, unwatchable team after this deal. As they should be. Hitting the detonator on this core was the only feasible option, and the team could finagle its way into max-level cap space this summer by amnestying Carlos Boozer and making a few other moves.
That's all well and good until your three biggest core pieces feel alienated. To varying degrees, exiling Deng to Cleveland puts management at odds with Rose, center Joakim Noah and coach Tom Thibodeau—each of whom are ostensibly part of the long-term plan.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reported last month Rose has told confidants he has no interest in being part of a rebuilding project. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson understandably refused to characterize the deal as such on Tuesday:
Fair point. A healthy Rose and Noah combined with the highly touted Nikola Mirotic's impending NBA arrival and a 2014 lottery pick should be enough to field a playoff team. If the Bulls are able to wrangle themselves an elite free agent—get ready for a whole heaping pile of Carmelo Anthony rumors—then maybe there's something to this deal.
We'd just be remiss without highlighting just how much of a risk this is. Mirotic is an excellent talent, probably the most buzzed-about European player in recent memory. There is still no guarantee he's ready to contribute in the NBA.
Rose is coming off two major knee surgeries, will have played 10 games of competitive basketball in two years by October and struggled in his return this season. Plus, Russell Westbrook's troubles recovering from his meniscus injury provides enough anecdotal evidence to scare anyone.
Oh, and I'm pretty sure Thibodeau and Noah probably couldn't be in the same room with upper management right now without a major blowup.
Noah declined to speak to the media Tuesday, instead choosing to send out multiple Twitter mentions of his departed teammate. Deng was a known favorite of Thibodeau, with their hard-nosed lunchpail mentalities coalescing to form one of the best coach-player relationships in the league.
"We discussed it, and I'll leave it at that," Thibodeau said when asked whether he disagreed with the move, per ESPN Chicago.
Translation: Yes, I disagreed vehemently and am not one to cause a public fuss. This isn't the first time coach and management have differed greatly on a decision, either. Wojnarowski indicated Thibodeau and Forman's relationship was the worst in the league after the team decided to fire trusted assistant Ron Adams without Thibodeau's permission last season.
The rift can't be getting any better now. With his favorite assistant and player gone, one has to wonder whether things have gotten so toxic that Thibs' days in Chicago are numbered.
Marc Stein of ESPN noted last month Thibodeau may be a target of the New York Knicks next summer, at which point the team will have probably moved on from Mike Woodson. Thibs is under contract, but Doc Rivers' move from the Celtics to the Los Angeles Clippers last year provides a blueprint for New York or any other team looking to land a big-name coach.
None of this even mentions the utterly abhorrent treatment of Deng by the Bulls over the years. They misdiagnosed not just one but two injuries, the latter being a botched spinal tap that could have gone horribly awry if left undetected for much longer. For people other than the ones in the locker room, it often looked as if Deng were a tertiary priority. It was his responsibility to take a massive pay cut to stay, no one else's.
And no matter whether the Bulls made the prudent move here, none of it is a good look.
The Cavaliers are all-in for the playoffs. The Bulls are all-in on a clear cap sheet, a reloaded roster and 2014 pingpong balls. There couldn't be two more different teams in the league. There are Gilbert, the irrationally emotional, and Reinsdorf, the cold-blooded business man.
So why does it feel like neither side will wind up with a happy ending?
(All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.)
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