While many of us were sound asleep on Monday night, Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant was still hard at work. Glasses on, Grant was looking to capitalize on the flexibility he gave the team in structuring Andrew Bynum’s contract in a way that not only protected the team, but also served as a valuable trade item should Bynum not work out in Cleveland.
Needless to say, Andrew Bynum didn’t work out. So late Monday night, Grant finally found the trade partner he was looking for in the Chicago Bulls. At 12:54 am, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert officially welcomed Luol Deng to the team via Twitter.
The deal is pretty simple. The Cavaliers acquired Deng from the Bulls and in return they sent Andrew Bynum, the conditional first-round pick from the Kings1, the two second-round picks the Cavs are owed from Portland, and in 2015 the Bulls will have the option to swap first round picks with the Cavs, as long as the Cavs pick isn’t in the top 14.
There are two different aspects of this deal that need to be examined. This trade will impact the Cavaliers in multiple ways. Obviously, there is the immediate impact on the team for this season, but this deal will also potentially have a major impact on the future as well.
Let’s start with the present.
For the 2013-14 season, this trade is a major coup for the Cavaliers. While Deng has been a little bothered by an achilles injury this season, he is still having one of the best seasons of his career. Averaging 19 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game, Deng is an immediate, massive upgrade at the Cavaliers’ worst position, small forward. Furthermore, this is an acquisition for the Cavaliers that, for once, doesn’t bring in replicated skills but rather, fills some major holes.
Deng is an efficient shooter, capable of hitting mid-range shots, corner 3’s, and is capable at finishing at the rim. He’s capable of moving off the ball and can score without dominating the ball. He’s a very good wing defender as well and will fit in with Mike Brown’s defense-first mentality. His eFG% of .476 this season trails only Matthew Dellavedova (.563) and CJ Miles (.496) among Cavaliers playing 15 minutes or more per game. Deng is also capable of creating scoring from the FT line. For comparison, Kyrie Irving has 32 “And-1” opportunities this season and has drawn 112 shooting fouls total. Deng has 29 and 117, respectively. Furthermore, Deng is yet another solid veteran leader, someone who brings in playoff experience and a winning mindset.
In every single way imaginable, this trade makes the Cavaliers a better team this season. Luol Deng is the best “No. 2 player” the Cavaliers have had in a very long time. With all due respect to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Mo Williams, and/or 40-year old Shaq, Deng is better than any player LeBron James ever had the privilege of playing with in Cleveland. The Cavaliers starting lineup of Kyrie, Miles, Deng, Tristan Thompson, and Anderson Varejao should be good enough to get the Cavaliers into the playoffs. It should be. It doesn’t mean it will, but it should be.
Where this trade becomes a little more questionable, however, is when we look at what this means for the future. Luol Deng is in the final year of his deal and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Yes, that means he can sign with another team and the Cavaliers will have nothing to show for it. If that happens, though, the Cavaliers will not have given up too much. That’s the good news.
But what if the Cavaliers want to re-sign Deng, and he wants to sign with Cleveland? That’s where things get a little dicey for the future. The Cavaliers now hold Deng’s Bird Rights and can sign Deng to a larger contract than anyone else can. Deng reportedly turned down a 3 year, $30 million offer from the Bulls, which isn’t surprising. Deng knows he can get more on the market. By holding his Bird Rights, the Cavaliers can offer Deng up to a 5 year deal with 7.5% annual increases (compared to 4 years with 4.5% increases for everyone else). Deng isn’t a “max player”, but he did make $14.3 million this year and will likely be able to get somewhere around $15 per year on the market. That’s the price the Cavaliers will have to match.
Next year, with Bynum now off the books and Deng an unrestricted free agent, the Cavaliers only have $32,044,677 in salary. The salary cap is projected to be somewhere around $62.1 million. Assuming the Cavaliers pick up their $9.8 million team option on Anderson Varejao, that takes the team salary to $41,844,677, giving them just over $20.25 million in cap space2. However, the Cavaliers will hold Deng’s Bird Rights and thus have a $21.4 million cap hold for Deng. What this means is that any free agent the Cavaliers sign will have to fall under the Mid-Level, Bi-Annual, or some other salary cap exception.
Of course, at any point the Cavaliers could renounce Deng’s rights and thus open up the full $20 million in cap space, but that would likely cost them any chance of bringing back Deng. So in many ways, these next 3.5 months will be an audition period for Deng and the Cavaliers. They can see how well he fits next to Kyrie and if the pairing of those two All-Stars is able to elevate the team’s performance as a whole. Then, this offseason, the Cavaliers can decide whether a Kyrie-Deng core is a Championship caliber core to build around or not. But if the Cavaliers want to keep Deng and sign another high caliber player this summer, it means they will have to either decline Andy’s option, or look to trade Andy and/or some combination of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.
The elephant in the room here, of course, is LeBron James. Many fans (and likely Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant as well) were hoping the Cavaliers could lure LeBron back to town. But with the relative disaster of this team’s performance this season, that was never going to happen. Chris Grant had to get proactive and finally fix the SF hole on this team, and he did so. The Cavaliers cannot and should not worry about LeBron James unless they are getting back channel word that LeBron wants to return. Otherwise, the Cavaliers need to worry about themselves and how to start improving this team before Kyrie becomes a free agent.
Basketball is a funny sport. Some people will criticize the Cavs for trying to make the playoffs and not tanking in a deep draft. While that point of view makes some sense, the fact remains that it’s criticism of a team for improving itself and trying to get into the postseason. Again, that’s not to say the pro-tanking mentality is wrong, just that it seems a bit counter-intuitive sometimes. If you want to see the Cavaliers play better basketball this season, this trade is a winner. If you’re concerned about how this impacts the team’s future chances at becoming a title contender, you’re going to have to be patient and see what the Cavs do with Deng and free agency this summer.
Everyone loves the Oklahoma City Thunder model of building through multiple high draft picks in successive years. But the problem with that is you have to be lucky with your timing and you have to nail every single draft pick. And what has the Thunder model really proved? They haven’t won a Championship. They only thing it has proved so far is that if you draft too well you might have to trade a star player for nothing in return.
If you look at the way the Mavericks built their Championship team, they did it with savvy trades and putting the right pieces in place with everyone having a defined role, whether it be bench scorer, interior post defender, outside shooter, or general superstar. Many fans have wanted the Cavaliers to be the next Thunder, but the reality is the draft didn’t produce those kind of results. The Cavaliers option now may be to follow the Maverick’s blueprint. Make more smart trades, bring in the right pieces, and hope that Kyrie and Deng can stay healthy and productive together.
There will come a time when the real impact of acquiring Deng on the Cavs’ future will be clear, but for today, this is a move designed for the present. The Cavaliers are suddenly a better team. The question is, how much better? As weak as the Eastern Conference is, this trade should make the Cavs a playoff team this season. If it doesn’t, it could very well signal the end of Chris Grant’s time in Cleveland.
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