Cleveland acquired Deng in a trade originally announced by the Chicago Bulls, sending Andrew Bynum and three draft picks to the Windy City in exchange for the two-time All-Star:
Initial reactions varied.
Deng clearly made the Cavs better, but at what cost? And how much better?
What happens in Cleveland this season matters. The Cavs are approaching a crucial summer and an equally important 2014-15 campaign—one that will shape their future for better or worse—because of this trade.
Because of Deng.
Protecting Their Behind...
Face it: Cleveland didn't give up much for Deng.
Bynum was and remains a head case, emitting iniquitous entitlement that's too toxic for a young team like the Cavs. They weren't using him, and he didn't want to be there. Capitalizing off this irreparable rift was ingenious.
Cleveland forfeited three draft picks, of course, because Chicago couldn't trade Deng for nothing. And that's what Bynum, whom the Bulls waived, became: nothing. But the way they're protected diminishes their value to all parties involved.
The Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson broke down the commitments nicely:
The Bulls acquired the right to the Sacramento Kings’ first-round pick, which is top-12 protected in 2014, top-10 protected from 2015-17 and then becomes a second-round pick if not used by then, and two second-round picks the Cavaliers had acquired from the Trail Blazers in 2015 and 2016.
Also, the Bulls have the right to swap their own 2015 first-round pick with the Cavaliers only in the case the Cleveland pick is between 15 and 30.
Theoretically, the Cavs could have acquired Deng without relinquishing a single first-round selection.
That Sacramento pick—a residual asset from J.J. Hickson's departure/another stroke of genius—isn't guaranteed to come in the first round. If the Kings remain terrible through 2017 (not impossible), it becomes a second-round selection.
Natural progression suggests the Kings will finish outside the bottom 10 or 12 over the next few years, which is fine. The Bulls are unlikely to draft a franchise cornerstone at No. 11 or 13, or later.
Chicago does have the right to swap first-round slots with Cleveland in 2015, which once more, isn't a big deal. The Bulls can only exercise such leverage if the Cavs' pick falls outside the top 14. In this year's draft, said position would be a valuable commodity. Next summer? Not so much.
At worst, you're looking at a Cavs team that traded a top-11 pick, while moving slightly down in next year's draft, for a two-time All-Star who makes them markedly better. Oh, and Bynum. Can't forget about him.
Actually, you can. That's how irrelevant he became.
...With Wafer-Thin Armor
Although the Cavs did, and have historically done, a nice job protecting future assets and plans, they've put all their faith in general manager Chris Grant's uncertain hands.
Kyrie Irving will be eligible for an extension soon, and while players coming off rookie deals typically re-sign, Cleveland has no guarantee its situation won't be different. The Cavs must sell Irving on a future plan before he commits to staying, a plan that now holds little to no margin for error.
Grant intends to make the 28-year-old Deng part of Cleveland's future, according to The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer, a gutsy plan in and of itself. Deng will enter unrestricted free agency this summer, where he will meet an array of suitors waiting to pay handsomely for his services.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed that Deng turned down a three-year, $30 million contract extension from Chicago before being traded, ensuring Cleveland will have to pay the piper if it wishes to retain the forward. Investing $12 million or more annually is what it could take to keep him. If the Cavs are willing to go that high, they're essentially saying, "Kyrie, here's your sidekick. Go."
Most of their cap flexibility will be gone. Hope will be placed in Irving and Deng, and the current prospects surrounding them. And those protected draft picks. Shrewd drafting will become a necessity.
That's a problem, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller astutely observes:
Deng makes Cleveland better, and Cavs GM Chris Grant continues to handle his future assets pretty well. At the very least, he knows how to cover his ass, guarding against things going terribly wrong on the court. The problem is that it had to come to this because Grant has been otherwise terrible at building a good team. Witness Grant's four top-4 picks in the past three drafts.
Despite fortuitous draft placement, Cleveland's track record over the last few years isn't great. The Cavs have grabbed four top-four picks since 2011, rarely striking gold.
|Cavs' Track Record for Top-Four Picks Since 2011|
|Kyrie Irving||2011||First Overall||No one else|
|Tristan Thompson||2011||Fourth Overall||Jonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic|
|Dion Waiters||2012||Fourth Overall||Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard|
|Anthony Bennett||2013||First Overall||Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Steven Adams, Tim Hardaway Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo|
|Draft info via ESPN.|
Since selecting Irving, Cleveland hasn't gotten it right. No team is perfect, but they're housing some particularly questionable talent, none more painful to watch than Anthony Bennett.
That's what the Cavs have to sell Irving on—a draft track record like this. It's all they have to sell him on if they re-sign Luol Deng.
Can he place his trust in an organization that's adept at putting itself in position to succeed but inept at achieving actual success?
Risky Plan B
Deng had better be what the Cavs want. What Irving needs. What Cleveland needs.
The possibility remains that Cleveland still misses the playoffs this year, even in an atrocious Eastern Conference. At that point, the Cavs are faced with a decision: to re-sign Deng, who wasn't enough to spur a postseason berth, or let him walk, admitting what they gave up, however insignificant, was all for naught.
That's if they haven't extended him before then. Deng can sign an extension at any point this season, and if the Cavs approach him with the right number, there's no reason to assume he won't. If and when he does, everything changes.
Forget about luring LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer or next, or whenever he hits the open market. Committing to Deng kills that dream without an improbable series of salary dumps.
The Cavs, who have substantial money committed to Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Bennett through next season or beyond, won't have any financial plasticity. Not if they intend to re-sign Irving.
But keeping Irving becomes an arduous task by itself if Deng stays, even if Cleveland makes the playoffs. Will he be content with a first- or second-round exit? That's what the Cavs are looking at, after all. They're not contenders. Not right now, when their only proven talent comprises Irving and Deng, and their supporting cast reads like novels of potboilers.
This trade will make or break, strengthen or shatter, the Cavs' future, shaping Irving's decision and where the team goes thereafter.
"We're bringing him here and we'd like to keep him here long term,'' Grant said of Deng, per Schmitt. "He's 28 years old. We see him as part of our core and our youth moving forward."
If that's really their plan, if selling Irving on a mediocre roster and pedestrian trajectory at expense of loftier ambitions (LeBron) is truly their next course of action, then Cleveland better brace itself for more of the same.
More failure. More wreckage.
*Salary information used courtesy ShamSports.