The Cavs Are Thinking Playoffs, the Bulls Are Thinking Ahead

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images Luol Deng

The always massive Cavaliers contingent brought a multi-layered bluster to last season’s draft lottery. The bow-tied crew hooted and hollered upon winning again, shouting over the actual announcement and drawing bemused side-eyes from Kevin Love and Damian Lillard on the dais. A rapper named Machine Gun Kelly was involved, declaring himself the biggest thing in Cleveland since LeBron James.

But afterward, the Cavs group made it clear they had no more lottery trips planned. “We’re gonna be in the playoffs,” Jeff Cohen, the vice-chair of the Cavs and Dan Gilbert’s no. 2 guy, told me. “You’re going to be watching us play [on television] after this event.”

As a result, this is a franchise under enormous pressure to make the playoffs. It was not hard to predict that Cleveland, stocked with future draft assets, would make a future-for-present trade if the team got off to a disappointing start. It pulled the trigger late Monday, flipping Andrew Bynum’s non-guaranteed deal and three draft picks (one first-rounder, two second-rounders) to Chicago in exchange for Luol Deng. The deal gets the Bulls under the tax threshold and saves them about $20 million in real dollars this season — a savings that will make losing Deng easier to swallow using the amnesty provision on the final year of Carlos Boozer’s contract. It also stops the clock on the dreaded repeater tax. Cutting ties with Boozer would leave Chicago with somewhere between $10 million and $12 million in cap room this summer, depending on whether it can sign Nikola Mirotic away from Europe, and where its pick falls in the 2014 draft. It should fall in the lottery after this deal. This is a game group with a maniacally competitive head coach, and it has won four of its last six games after initially cratering without Derrick Rose. But Deng has been the team’s best post-Rose two-way player, and without him, the cupboard is bare.

(Seriously: Poor Tom Thibodeau. I’m picturing Thibs lying on the floor of his house in the fetal position, surrounded by VHS tapes of old game film, and muttering, “We have more than enough to win” over and over).

The Bulls have given themselves an opportunity to rebuild on the fly, a rare thing for a team with a very good nucleus. They have their own pick, the potential introduction of Mirotic as the team’s third big man, the aforementioned cap space, and another potential first-rounder from Sacramento that the Cavs have traded in this deal. (That pick is top-12 protected this year, which means Sacramento keeps it if it falls within the top 12 picks. It is top-10 protected in the three subsequent seasons, and if Sacramento remains so abjectly horrible as to pick that high in every one of those seasons, the Bulls will only receive a second-round pick. Chicago is betting on Sacramento’s new ownership doing everything it can to put at least a mediocre product on the floor as the Kings gear up for their final arena push. The Kings are 4-8 since Rudy Gay joined the team, and though they’ve played about league-average ball on offense, they’ve remained a clueless disaster on the other end of the floor. They’re capped out this summer, and if they can’t find a way to upgrade their defense from pooptastic to merely below-average, it’s possible they won’t improve in any meaningful way. But a lot can change between now and 2016-17, and as Mike Malone and the new front office/ownership settle in, the Kings should be able to improve just enough so that Chicago gets a first-round pick out of this.) They also got a nice last-minute sweetener — the right to swap 2015 first-round picks with Cleveland, provided the Cavs’ pick is outside the lottery. That could come in handy, since the Bulls could be very good again next season.

The Cavs are willing to pay that price, though no one ever went broke betting on the Kings’ incompetence (mostly of the prior owners and front office, of course). I mean, the Cavaliers had this extra first-rounder in the first place because the Kings somehow thought J.J. Hickson was worth Omri Casspi and a first-round pick. But Cleveland has extra picks from Memphis and Miami, and it’s comfortable giving one up in exchange for a playoff run and first dibs on Deng in free agency this summer.

Free agency will in part define how this trade ultimately works out for each team. The Cavs could have about $17 million in cap space this summer, assuming they let their bricky small forward duo — Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee — walk away. Cleveland had real dreams of luring LeBron James with that space, and we’ve heard giddy schoolgirl talk about how stacked the free-agent market will be. But lots of those starry names are either restricted free agents; aging players that don’t fit a rebuilding team’s schedule; carrying player options they may exercise instead of becoming free agents; or unrestricted free agents with no obvious reason to leave their current teams — especially since those teams have the advantage of offering more money and years.

The Cavaliers now have that advantage with Deng, who may well emerge as one of the two or three best available free agents. Deng’s cap hold eats up all that projected cap space, and signing him to a new long-term deal could take Cleveland out of the max-level free-agency market for the foreseeable future. Deng turned down a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Bulls, according to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, so he’s not going to come cheap. Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson will be due big raises after this summer, with Irving surely getting a max-level extension. Dion Waiters would come one year later.

That’s a nice core, but it would appear to be a good big man away from being the core of a real contender. Anthony Bennett, poor guy, doesn’t appear to be that kind of big man, though it’s early. Thompson is a nice player, but nothing more — yet. Anderson Varejao is aging and no longer playing at prime levels. Also, the Deng trade may take Cleveland out of the most anticipated lottery in a decade, though that is hardly a sure thing. The Cavs are 11-23, three games out of a playoff spot. Atlanta may fall off without Al Horford, but it’s 18-17 with an interesting, well-rounded roster. The Wizards and Raptors will get there. Charlotte has predictably fallen off as its scheduled toughened, but it’s 15-20 with a stout defense, and it’s 2-0 against the Cavs. Detroit should be better than it is. The New York teams have resembled real NBA basketball clubs over the last week. Even if all five of Boston, Philly, Orlando, Milwaukee, and now Chicago sink into the abyss, that still leaves 10 teams slap-fighting for the eight spots. Nothing is guaranteed here for the Cavs.

Actually, one thing is. Deng will be a shining, giant upgrade over the guys currently manning perhaps the weakest single position on a team actually trying to win games. Clark and Gee can’t shoot or dribble, and the Cavs have suffered fatal floor-spacing issues when they play one of them at small forward with two traditional bigs. Mike Brown’s chronically uncreative offense hasn’t helped, and the Cavs have tried to goose things by occasionally sliding Clark to power forward and/or playing three-guard lineups featuring three among Irving, Waiters, Jarrett Jack, and Matthew Dellavedova.

Deng’s best skill is his defense, and the Cavs rank a respectable 15th in points allowed per possession. They’re 28th on the other end, and if they want to make a real leap, that’s where they’ll have to do it. Deng should help, but perhaps not as much as the Cavs hope. He’s a below-average career 3-point shooter, and he has struggled from deep in each of the last two seasons. Teams can’t ignore him as blatantly as they do Gee and Clark, but he doesn’t have a strong gravitational pull.

Deng can do the other stuff — work the pick-and-roll as a secondary ball handler, catch the ball coming off screens for one-dribble rim attacks or midrange jumpers, post up smaller guys, and cut in smart ways. He’s not fast enough to get huge separation from his guy, but he’s clever, and he gets just enough space to worm his way around. He’s a willing, creative passer, and he has flourished this season in a large role since Rose’s injury. He’ll help.

Finding the right price point for him in free agency will be tough, and the Cavs are now invested in finding that price point. Deng is nearly 29, with a lot of Thibodeauian miles on his legs. You can read the “he doesn’t get much separation” thing in two ways. Since he doesn’t rely on killer athleticism, perhaps his game will age well. On the flippity flip, it is worrisome to think about what might happen if Deng slows just a quarter-step and that little bit of separation turns into none. The Cavs have to be careful here, and they will be. Going full hog on a five-year deal is probably ill-advised, and if Deng insists on a fourth year, the Cavs will surely push to have some of it non-guaranteed.

Bottom line: Cleveland is under huge pressure to win now, and it’s received a player who should help this season and beyond. It’s not a home run deal, especially since the Kings acquired Gay without sacrificing a pick. Teams are hoarding first-rounders in general; the Magic couldn’t get one last season for J.J. Redick, and the Suns got one of roughly equivalent value for Marcin Gortat before this season. Deng is better than Gortat, but the Cavaliers here were offering both picks and MASSIVE cap savings for Chicago. (Side note: That Gortat deal looks better for Phoenix every day).

Cleveland could have continued its run toward the bottom ahead of a stacked draft. That would have probably been the wiser move in a vacuum, but the Cavs aren’t operating in a vacuum. They’re operating in a world in which they’ve made promises, and under an emotional owner who wants victory now.

Back to Chicago, and to free agency: This will be Chicago’s last summer before Jimmy Butler is due a new contract, which will add another large deal to a pile that includes Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson. Bring Butler back at a fair rate, ink Mirotic, and factor in all the picks Chicago is now due (including a first-rounder from Charlotte at some point), and the Bulls could be facing limited cap flexibility in future summers after this one. A lot can change, obviously; the cap will continue to go up, the Bulls will make trades, and Noah’s deal is up after 2015-16.

But the Bulls have some incentive to use this newfound cap flexibility while they have it, either in free agency or in some lopsided trade. Remember: Deng may emerge as one of the top three real free agents this summer, and the Bulls just let him go. They have to replace his production, at some point, somehow. Mirotic and the picks will help, but the Bulls need more proven stuff on the wing in addition to Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and the untested Tony Snell. If I were Gar Forman/John Paxson, I’d think hard about breaking the bank for Lance Stephenson — an unrestricted free agent who could work on the wing next to Butler and effectively serve as the team’s backup point guard, a role Stephenson is playing now for Indiana. Stephenson is a rare thing — an under-25, unrestricted free agent. The Bulls might have to carve out a bit more room to realistically chase him, perhaps by salary-dumping the helpless Marquis Teague, but it’s worth a thought. (Side note on Mirotic: The 2014 draft will mark three years since the Bulls picked Mirotic, meaning they could sign him outside the restrictions of the rookie scale, per several league sources.)

If Chicago can’t find the right free-agency target, it could hold the fort with a couple of affordable veterans, and use its new bevy of assets to kick around potential trade ideas for big names who might become available.

This trade puts Chicago in a very good place. It’s hard to come out much better while losing an All-Star in what amounts to a salary dump/tanking maneuver.

Oh, hey, Andrew Bynum! The Bulls will waive him immediately, he’ll clear waivers, and the bidding will begin among Miami, the Clippers, and any other playoff team seeking a rotation big man. I’ve seen speculation that Bynum is the missing piece Miami needs to ensure continued superiority over the Pacers.

I’m not sure what the Bynum optimists have seen this year. This is a broken player who can barely get up and down the court, can’t finish at the rim, and can’t move at all on defense. Bynum is shooting 42 percent, a catastrophe for a big man who hangs around the rim. He has hit just 46.8 percent of his chances in the restricted area, a bad mark for a player of any size, and he has compensated by drifting away from the hoop. About 30 percent of Bynum’s shot attempts have come between 10 and 19 feet away from the basket this season; about 8 percent of his shots came from that range in his final season with the Lakers. Bynum is a serviceable midrange shooter, but this is a bit much.

He’s still a very good offensive rebounder, and he draws double-teams in the post. But some of those double-teams stem from the opponent’s belief that it can pressure Bynum into turnovers, since he has never been all that good passing out of double-teams. He’s still blocking shots at a decent rate. A large human is a real deterrent at the basket.

But the guy just can’t move. Cleveland allows 11 fast-break points per 48 minutes when Bynum sits, and nearly 19 when he plays, per That first number would rank Cleveland among the league’s four best teams at preventing fast-break points. The larger number would rank them dead last, by a mile. Bynum single-handedly kills any team’s transition defense, and he’s helpless moving around the foul line to contain pick-and-rolls. A smart system could leverage what remaining skills he has, and he might help on the glass in the right matchup — and in very small doses. He’s better than Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, and Ryan Hollins.

But Bynum has looked bad this season. There have been a lot of anonymous potshots about Bynum’s enthusiasm for basketball, his work ethic, his passion. Some of that is fair. His demeanor on the court is blasé, and he rarely runs hard. But sources in both Philadelphia and Cleveland maintain Bynum was a monster in his rehab for both teams — that he did everything asked of him, and more, and showed a real desire to get back on the court. Whether he did that for money or love of the game is an open question, but there are people in both franchises who feel Bynum has gotten an unfair shake.

Regardless: He’s a bit player in a really interesting deal that is more of a win for Chicago.

Filed Under: NBA, Andrew Bynum, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Bulls, Cavaliers, Luol Deng, Zach Lowe

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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