Winners, Losers and Takeaways from Pelicans-Bulls Trade for Nikola MiroticFebruary 1, 2018
Winners, Losers and Takeaways from Pelicans-Bulls Trade for Nikola Mirotic
Nikola Mirotic makes so much sense as a frontcourt partner for Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans decided to trade for him twice.
After a deal between The Bayou's best and the Chicago Bulls fell through earlier in the week, the two sides reached an agreement on Thursday that will land the 26-year-old combo forward with the Pelicans, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Terms of the deal are as follows:
- Chicago receives: Tony Allen, Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson, a protected 2018 first-round pick and the right to swap second-rounders with the Pelicans in 2021.
- New Orleans receives: Nikola Mirotic and its own 2018 second-round pick, which was traded to Chicago as part of the Quincy Pondexter salary dump in late August. They Pelicans also pick up Mirotic's $12.5 million team option for 2018-19.
Anyone who has refreshed their Twitter feed even once over the past few days could sense some variation of this deal would get done. The Pelicans are trying to solidify their playoff status in the aftermath of DeMarcus Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury, while the Bulls have profiled as prime salary-dumping ground since they shipped Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in June.
Now that the transaction is officially official, and since we have more than a year to mentally prepare for New Orleans' Omer Asik tribute video, we get to kill some time unpacking the ramifications for everyone involved—both directly and indirectly.
New Orleans Pelicans
Trading away another first-rounder isn't the greatest look for the Pelicans. Mirotic doesn't nudge them into championship territory, and they'll now have one fewer cost-controlled asset at their disposal—a not-so-insignificant development, even with an inbound second-rounder, given their financial outlook.
New Orleans will be fortunate to evade the luxury-tax line next season depending on how much it takes to re-sign Cousins. But this was always the case. Mirotic only runs $1.2 million more than Asik would have next season, and, well, he can actually play.
Having him come off the bench in 2018-19, as the de facto third big behind Cousins, offers an additional layer of depth the Pelicans just don't have now. They can even get away with him at the 3 in small bursts, beside both of their bigs.
In the meantime, Mirotic spares the Pelicans from overburdening Darius Miller at the 4 and running out clunky frontcourt combos that would've—gulp—included Asik. He is the perfect complement to Davis, who is now, for all intents and purposes, a center. That they opened up some roster spots in the process is valuable as well.
Picking up Mirotic's player option is also a nice hedge against Cousins' future in New Orleans. Should he and the Pelicans part ways, the latter won't be totally screwed. Mirotic doesn't promise anything near Cousins' value, but he's good enough for the Pelicans to sell Davis on a competitive bridge into a more flexible summer of 2019.
Take everything from above and apply it here.
Diluted down even further: Mirotic traded in playing on a tanker for joining a postseason hopeful while guaranteeing himself a $12.5 million windfall next season. That's a pretty darn good day by anyone's standards.
Chicago Bulls' Tank
The Bulls comfortably owned the NBA's worst record through their first 23 games and appeared to be in line for this year's best lottery odds. But then Mirotic returned from the injuries he suffered at the fist of Bobby Portis, and everything kind of, sort of changed.
The Bulls are a too-good 15-13 since that point. If the lottery took place now, they would have the sixth-best odds of snagging the No. 1 pick. Mirotic isn't the sole root of this inconvenient uprising, but his transformation into an alpha(ish) buckets-getter didn't help.
And while the Bulls were committed to sitting him through the trade deadline, they're better off by cutting ties altogether. They snag a first-round pick in exchange for stomaching Asik until 2019 (only $3 million of his 2019-20 salary is guaranteed), and their pursuit of Deandre Ayton/Marvin Bagley III/Luka Doncic/whoever looks a whole lot better.
Rajon Rondo has been something less than an asset for the Pelicans. Their defense craters when he's on the floor, and lineups that feature Jrue Holiday as the primary ball-handler, away from Rondo, have been far more potent.
Yet, somehow, the 31-year-old point guard is more of a necessary evil than ever. Nelson's inclusion in this deal cements his spot in the rotation, even if head coach Alvin Gentry eventually marries himself to the idea of Mike James.
Leave it to the Bulls to both win and lose a trade at the same time.
Shipping out Mirotic without receiving any tangible impact assets in return helps their tank and gets them a mid-end first-round pick—all great things. But did they need to surrender the Pelicans' second-rounder back to them?
This isn't sell-Jordan-Bell-to-the-Warriors egregious. Nor is it nearly as bad as including the No. 16 pick in the Jimmy Butler jam. But, again, why? Haven't the Bulls learned their lesson?
Nabbing the right to swap second-round choices with New Orleans in 2021 will prove immensely valuable if Davis is traded away by then. That's not good enough. Rebuilding squads should not be giving away picks—any picks—that will convey while they're still knee-deep in transition.
First, Nelson goes from being the Denver Nuggets' most-played point guard last season to getting waived so Richard Jefferson could warm up the bench.
Then, somewhat randomly, Gentry brought James off the bench before him during New Orleans' Jan. 30 loss to the Sacramento Kings—though Nelson did play 15 more minutes.
Now, he's being traded to the Bulls, one of the NBA's worst teams, who are both overrun with guards and intent on keeping him around, according to Wojnarowski.
Life, fast, unfair, etc.
Not only did the Utah Jazz miss out on Mirotic, who wanted to play for them, but he was traded to one of their most direct postseason competitors.
Leap-frogging the seventh-place Pelicans might be—or rather, might have been—the Jazz's best shot at sneaking into the playoffs. They're within striking distance of the eighth-place Nuggets, but the prospect of Paul Millsap's return coupled with Cousins' injury rendered New Orleans the more catchable foe.
Utah was smart not to pay through the teeth for Mirotic. Giving up a future first-round pick is dangerous for teams stuck in the middle—including New Orleans.
But now, with the Pelicans armed to tread water inside the Western Conference's playoff bubble, the Jazz have to hope for the Nuggets (or Portland Trail Blazers) to implode in conjunction with the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers continuing their designed demolition.
Anthony Davis Trade Conspiracists (Danny Ainge), Romantics (Danny Ainge) and Suitors (Danny Ainge)
At no point this season has Davis been on the chopping block. Prospective suitors who have tried to rage against reality have been rebuked at every turn.
As one league executive told Sporting News' Sean Deveney, "The conversations end quickly, as I understand."
Swift rebuttals are hardly a deterrence for the league's foremost vultures, though. As Deveney also noted: "Several teams—Boston, most prominently, but also Golden State, San Antonio and Chicago—will go into this trade deadline not only with their own rosters in mind, but with some consideration for the potential of a Davis trade this summer."
Perhaps these teams aren't misplacing their hopes. A lot can, and will, change between now and the summer. (We'll get to that in a minute.) But for anyone hoping that maybe the Pelicans will entertain offers for Davis in the wake of Cousins' injury, this Mirotic trade acts as a mortal blow.
What It Means for the Pelicans' Playoff Push
To be clear, Mirotic isn't even a quarter-replica of Cousins. He doesn't sport the same brute force off the bounce and cannot be counted on to initiate pick-and-rolls. He's never been a frequent, or viable, rim-runner off screens either.
Still, he guarantees space at the 4 spot. Defenses have to plan around his 42.9 percent clip from beyond the arc. That will open up room for Davis face-ups, Holiday drives and general pick-and-rollery.
New Orleans can even Ryan Anderson-ify Mirotic, planting him so far behind the three-point line the defense doesn't have the means to cover every half-court action. Chicago didn't exactly give him carte blanche from extra-long distance, but Mirotic is shooting a stout 35.7 percent (10-of-28) between 27 and 29 feet.
Besides which, the Pelicans will get back some of their self-sufficient creation in this deal. The Bulls allowed Mirotic to experiment with more off-the-dribble work, and he's better off, verging on alpha-ish, because of it.
Among nearly 100 players who have made 15 or more appearances and are averaging at least three pull-up jumpers per game, he's notching the second-highest effective field-goal percentage, behind only Stephen damn Curry.
The Pelicans don't need Mirotic to be the exact iteration of his new self to crack the playoff ladder. Davis is equipped to go it alone up front. New Orleans has a better point differential per 100 possessions than Minnesota in the 500-plus minutes he's played without Cousins. Remove Rondo from the equation, and the resulting net rating (plus-5.3) exceeds that owned by Boston (plus-4.9).
Anything Mirotic gives the Pelicans from here on is gravy under the circumstances—and that includes his sneaky-effective defensive stands against opposing 4s. He's fairly quick at recovering into close-outs, and he's (almost) always had a way of making life difficult for bigger wings when they attack in space.
And just for kicks, the Pelicans may not face a genuine threat to their playoff throne. The Clippers appear to be hosting a fire sale after the Blake Griffin trade, and the Jazz are five games back of them in the loss column.
Pencil the Pelicans in for a postseason spot.
What It Means for the Chicago Bulls' Direction
More. Lauri. Markkanen.
Need we say more?
Well, actually, yes. Markkanen is fourth on the Bulls in total playing time and second in minutes per game. He won't be impacted much by Mirotic's departure, if at all. He's just super-good and deserved a shout-out.
Really, this trade confirms what we've known about the Bulls all along: They're committed to the rebuilding process.
Whether they have the right people in place to see out this extensive project is another issue. General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson have hardly fudged together a glowing resume these past few years. But they are, at the very least, putting the Bulls in line to organically chase top-three lottery odds.
Other players could be next for good measure. Justin Holiday, at 28, doesn't fit Chicago's timeline and is playing out the first season of a team-friendly two-year, $9 million pact. Robin Lopez might be worth something to another squad with only one year and $14.3 million remaining on his deal.
Everything the Bulls do from here should mirror this move (minus giving up the second-round pick). They're in the asset-collection business, and they retain the salary-cap filler and flexibility to absorb unsavory deals and unwanted players in exchange for pick and prospect compensation.
One thing Mirotic's departure doesn't tell us is how the Bulls will treat imminent reinvestments in a roster nowhere close to being competitive.
What it do, Zach LaVine?
LaVine hasn't looked spectacular since returning from his ACL injury. He's slower on defense, where he wasn't good to begin with, and his accuracy around the rim has taken a nosedive. Even if he regains his offensive bounce by season's end, the Bulls will still be saddled with making an expensive decision based on a small sample.
Are they going to match whatever contract offers he receives in restricted free agency no matter what, borne partially, perhaps, from the belief they have no choice after viewing him as the centerpiece of their Jimmy Butler return? Are they prepared to let him walk if the price tag warrants it? Is this a non-issue since cap space figures to be scant this summer?
So many questions remain unanswered in the aftermath of this trade, right down to whether the Bulls have their point guard of the future in Kris Dunn. For now, we know they're not hedging their bets on an accelerated turnaround. They're in this thing for the longer haul.
What It Means for the Futures of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis
Forfeiting a first-round pick and exercising Mirotic's team option are implicit messages from the Pelicans to Davis: They're not done trying to salvage a relationship everyone around the league is waiting on to fail.
Davis trade rumors never figured to heat up until this summer at the earliest, with him two years out from free agency (player option in 2020-21). This move doesn't reinforce that timeline. The Pelicans have extended it—at least into next season, if not through 2018-19. They wouldn't plan for Mirotic to be around for that long otherwise.
Cousins' future with the team is less certain.
In no way can the Pelicans view Mirotic as the preferred alternative to their star big man. One ranked among the 10 to 15 best players for most of this season. The other did not.
But Mirotic does, on some level, safeguard New Orleans against its all-or-nothing gene. Cousins is working his way back from a usually career-altering, sometimes trajectory-damning, Achilles injury. And he'll be a free agent before the Pelicans ever get hold of how his body and play style respond to the exhaustive recovery process.
Maxing him out on a four- or five-year deal without second thought would be reckless—especially when the market for his services, due to a short supply of cap space, was never expected to be notably robust in the first place.
At the same time, though, the Pelicans found themselves in a situation similar to the one they encountered with Jrue Holiday over the 2017 offseason: They couldn't afford to not pay Cousins because they didn't have the resources to even start replacing him.
That status quo has shifted. The Pelicans aren't suddenly wielding all the leverage in the world, but if they're not confident in matching or exceeding Cousins' market value, Mirotic gives them something resembling a contingency.
Though losing a fellow superstar won't sit well with Davis two years before he controls his own destiny, Cousins' departure no longer, in theory, damns the Pelicans to a late-lottery berth next season. And they'll have a clear path to $25 million-plus in 2019, with the potential to dredge up appreciably more if they get out from under the final year of deals for Solomon Hill ($13.2 million) and/or E'Twaun Moore ($8.7 million).
Is that vision enough for them to sell Davis on eventually signing a massive designated player extension? Are they willing to leverage the slight flexibility Mirotic gives them in negotiations with Cousins? Will the current front-office regime even be in place when the time comes to make all these decision?
Plenty about the Pelicans' future remains up the air. But the Mirotic trade, at its core, allows them to act outside the confines of complete and utter desperation.
Unless otherwise cited, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Jan. 31.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.