After trading three future draft picks and the washed-up shell of Andrew Bynum to the Chicago Bulls for the services of this All-Star small forward, that's abundantly clear. He'll be useful during the 2013-14 campaign, sure, but he's also a building block that will help turn these pretenders into contenders.
General manager Chris Grant said as much to The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer after the deal went down:
We're bringing him here and we'd like to keep him here long term. He's 28 years old. We see him as part of our core and our youth moving forward. We'll get through the season and get into those conversations at the appropriate time.
That said, there's a major difference between "we'd like to keep him" and "we're going to keep him." The first indicates a desire, and the second points toward the impossibility of him leaving in the offseason.
Grant may have said the former, but he needs to mean the latter.
Who is Luol Deng?
At 28 years old, Deng is still squarely in the midst of a prime, though it's a prime that could be shortened by the way Tom Thibodeau handles minutes. Much like most other prominent pieces on the Bulls, Deng spends a lot of time on the court, and he led the NBA in minutes per game during both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
In 2013-14, that's just been par for the course.
Although he's missed time to deal with various injuries, Deng has been playing the best basketball of his career. Without Derrick Rose in the lineup and with Jimmy Butler out for large chunks of time, he's been handed more offensive responsibility than ever before, and he's thriving.
Before being traded within the Central Division, the small forward was averaging 19.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.2 blocks per game. Shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 81.5 percent at the charity stripe with 2.6 turnovers per contest, Deng was certainly putting up All-Star numbers, especially in the injury-riddled Eastern Conference.
Most impressively, he was proving that he could thrive as the No. 1 option.
In the past, Deng had struggled when asked to lead an offense. His efficiency plummeted, and he consistently proved that he was unable to create shots for himself, relying instead on a jumper from the perimeter that usually wouldn't find the bottom of the net.
In 2013-14, things have been different.
Deng still hasn't shown off a consistent shooting stroke, as evidenced by his 27.4 percent shooting beyond the arc, but he's more comfortable than ever working off the bounce in spite of increased defensive attention. There's a reason that the Bulls have been so much better when he plays, according to NBA.com's statistical databases:
Not only has Chicago put up points with more ease, but the defense gets significantly better. And that's a big deal in a Thibodeau system, as the head coach is a master of milking defensive value from players with limited talent and packing the paint to the point that personnel almost doesn't matter.
Deng is by no means a one-way player.
If anything, he's better on the defensive end of the court, even if his contributions aren't always noticeable. He loves taking on hard assignments, and his off-ball defense is fantastic. And it's not like his on-ball defense is too shabby either.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Deng ranks in the top 60 players in the NBA in quite a few categories: isolation sets (No. 59), pick-and-roll ball-handler (No. 33), post-up (No. 14) and coming off screens (No. 40). He could stand to work on his knack for closing out on spot-up shooters, but that's also partly the fault of the system he plays in.
The Cavs are getting an All-Star-caliber player, and they shouldn't be concerned about the contributions he can make on either side of the court.
The only worry is his age. Signing Deng to anything more than a three-year deal risks a serious decline and the creation of an albatross of a contract.
What Kind of Situation Does Cleveland Have in the Future?
Now that the team traded away three future draft picks, the avenues toward building a title-contending roster are a bit more limited. Fortunately, there's no effect on Cleveland's 2014 selections, and the Cavs are still free to use their first-round pick.
Additionally, the team has three second-round picks this offseason, and those will be more helpful than normal thanks to the depth of this stacked crop of collegiate and international prospects.
But are any of those picks going to add another star?
Probably not, especially now that Deng will be helping devalue the Cavs' draft pick for the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign.
While Cleveland sits at 12-23 after the trade, it's only two games out of the No. 8 spot in the ridiculously weak Eastern Conference. Sure, there's a huge cluster of teams competing for the postseason berths (although it may be just a battle of attrition), but the talent boost the Cavaliers just received should make them the prohibitive favorites.
In fact, they're only six games shy of the Atlanta Hawks, who still hold down the No. 3 spot, and it's not that unreasonable to see the team rising all the way up into that range. Home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs is much more than just a pipe dream.
But while that sounds positive, it's also problematic.
The playoffs will be a hopeless endeavor for Cleveland, as it inevitably faces humiliating defeat at the hands of either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers. The extra games and additional revenue generated will be nice, but the devaluing of the team's lone first-round draft pick won't help the rebuilding process much.
And yes, the East is weak enough that it's possible for a rebuilding team to finish with the No. 3 record in the conference.
However, what about the team's financial flexibility?
General manager Chris Grant has done a fantastic job stockpiling non-guaranteed contracts so that he can open up plenty of cap space this offseason. If he parts ways with Anderson Varejao ($4 million guaranteed), Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee, Henry Sims and Matthew Dellavedova, he'll have only $35.2 million committed for 2014-15, per ShamSports.com.
Oh, and the depth chart won't look all that miserable before signing new players:
- Point guard: Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack
- Shooting guard: Dion Waiters, Carrick Felix
- Small forward: Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev
- Power forward: Tristan Thompson
- Center: Tyler Zeller
That's a pretty solid core, especially with enough cap space to pursue a star player. And that star will have to come at either small forward or center, which makes Deng the perfect fit.
Cleveland is in good, not great, shape going forward. Between the draft picks, the limited flexibility and the new-found ability to re-sign Deng, there shouldn't be too many worries for the Cavaliers. But there's also not a guaranteed path toward success.
How Far Should The Cavs Go?
Deng actually had a chance to stay in the Windy City, but he couldn't come to terms with an organization that typically likes to pinch its pennies.
According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, there was a three-year, $30 million offer in place, but it didn't meet Deng's expectations:
The Bulls were unwilling to pay Deng, 28, market value in the $12 million-to-$13 million-a-year range over four or five seasons. Deng spent nine-plus seasons in Chicago, where he often played hurt. Chicago is committed to re-signing shooting guard Jimmy Butler to a lucrative contract extension this summer, and after the loss of Derrick Rose for the season, the Bulls made a move for the long-term.
That market value is "not unreasonable when you consider Andre Iguodala, a one-time All-Star, landed four years and $48 million from the Golden State Warriors last summer," writes B/R's Dan Favale. "Josh Smith, another two-way forward, signed with the Detroit Pistons for four years and $56 million, but has yet to make an All-Star appearance."
Not only can the Cavaliers afford to make such a financial commitment, but they also have to.
Cleveland management can't risk Irving going down the same path that LeBron James once travelled. Plenty of free-agent mistakes and an inability to recruit a valuable Robin to LeBron's Batman led to the MVP's infamous decision, and the Cavaliers must learn from that mistake.
Favale also writes, "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."
The team is clearly banking on Deng with this trade, and it'll send an incredibly clear message if he's allowed to walk during the offseason.
Do what it takes to bring in players who will make Irving want to stay for the rest of his career. Show that management is willing to do what is necessary, even if it means slightly overpaying for an aging player.
Giving Deng a max contract would border on absurd, but the small forward's demands are more reasonable than that.
They're demands that must be met.