On January 6, the Chicago Bulls traded small forward Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum. If this was Bynum from 2011-12, this trade would have been a major win for the Bulls in terms of a straight talent swap. However, the Bulls traded for the 2014 version of Bynum, who has suffered through various knee injuries and a questioned desire to play basketball. This Bynum was a valuable trade piece because of his unique contract, rather than his on court production. Bynum’s deal with the Cavaliers was only guaranteed for roughly $6 million of a total $12 million for this season. Therefore, any team that had the rights to Bynum could waive him before January 7 at 5 p.m. and take a salary cap hit of $6 million, rather than the full $12 million. The Bulls knew this, and wisely executed the trade without receiving any impact players in return.
After waiving Bynum, the Bulls saved roughly $20 million. It was recognition from the Bulls’ front office that with Derrick Rose’s latest knee injury, they were not likely to win a championship, and that future flexibility was a bigger priority.
John Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations told ESPN, “What was unusual about this, unique about this was the Andrew Bynum contract…it gives us tremendous financial flexibility moving forward. The thing that we are assured of in talking to [Bulls chairman] Jerry [Reinsdorf] in going through this process is that the things that we benefit from financially, we are going to, in the future, put back into this basketball team.”
The Bulls also received future draft picks, including a protected first-round pick, and second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016.
The Bulls did not want to part with Deng, who has been a solid player, a fan favorite, and is a former All-Star. However, Chicago and Deng failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension, and determined they would have to pay more than they wanted to in order to keep him past this year. Realizing this, the Bulls flipped Deng into large financial savings and future draft picks, clearing the way for a free agent run at Carmelo Anthony.
Recent reports claim that Joakim Noah was recruiting Anthony during All-Star Weekend. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported, acquiring Anthony is not straightforward in spite of the $20 million savings. The Bulls will have to amnesty Carlos Boozer, trade away someone currently on the roster like Mike Dunleavy (owed slightly more than $3 million), and delay bringing over Nikola Mirotic, an overseas prospect. This all assumes Anthony is willing to take less money than he stands to make with the Knicks, which is not a sure bet. However if Chicago can pull this off, and Rose can come back healthy next season, the Bulls will feature a formidable lineup, including Rose, Jimmy Butler, Anthony, Taj Gibson and Noah.
The Bulls will have to fill in pieces around this unit to add depth, but as this season has shown, in today’s NBA veteran players will take less money for a chance to win a championship. Also, Chicago has proven this season that valuable players can be acquired midseason. The Bulls acquired D.J. Augustin in December and he has performed well above expectations. He is not Rose, but he has filled in admirably, as Nate Robinson did last year. The Bulls also acquired sharp shooter Jimmer Fredette, who was bought out of his contract with the Sacramento Kings. The Bulls are not the only team to acquire valuable players midseason. The Clippers acquired Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Danny Granger for minimum deals after each player was bought out of their contracts. Also, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to acquire small forward Caron Butler, who will help fill the void left by Thabo Sefolosha, who is injured and expected to miss several weeks.
The trend now is the rich get richer, and there is little doubt that veteran players will sign up for a chance to win a title in Chicago, especially if Carmelo is there next season. However, a run at Anthony is not Chicago’s only strategy toward improving their roster. Other players are likely to hit the free agent market, like the Big Three in Miami. If none of these options work out, the Bulls can delay acquiring any major players this summer, maintain cap flexibility and pursue free agents in 2015, when stars like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love may be available.
In addition, this trade does not just have future benefits as the Bulls have continued to compete without Deng. Before the trade, the Bulls allowed 97.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked second best in the league. After the trade, the Bulls have allowed 98.1 points per 100 possessions, still good for second best, right behind Indiana. More significantly, the offense has jumped from 96.5 points scored per 100 possessions to 101.2. Additionally, the Bulls have a better win percentage, having gone 20-10 since January 6, whereas the team was 14-18 before the trade. Surprisingly, the Bulls managed to improve their on-court performance while increasing their flexibility for next season.
The franchise recognized that having flexibility this upcoming summer was more important than the chance to win a few more game this season. Now Cleveland faces the same problem the Bulls recognized with Deng, which is that he will be looking for a big new contract, and may leave the team if he can get more money elsewhere. With the Bulls currently playing well, and the Knicks’ disastrous season getting worse by the day- increasing the likelihood Carmelo will leave- this deal should be considered the best this season.
– Jesse Blancarte