Posted Jan 7, 2014 2:13 AM - Updated Jan 7, 2014 7:44 AM
The Cleveland Cavaliers turned a piece of paper into an All-Star forward.
Monday's stunning NBA trade between Cleveland and Chicago, completed as college football's National Championship was being decided, sent disgruntled center Andrew Bynum's contract and three future picks to the Bulls in exchange for Luol Deng. And it helped both teams solve potentially vexing long-term problems.
In acquiring Deng, a two-time All-Star, Cleveland solidified itself at small forward, brought a calming voice into what has been an occasionally fractured locker room, and took significant pressure off of 2013 first overall pick Anthony Bennett, who's struggled mightily adapting to the pros.
But the deal solves an immediate problem for the Bulls as well.
Trading Deng and getting his $14.3 million salary off their books will take Chicago, whose current payroll exceeds $80 million, below the $71 million luxury tax threshold, meaning the Bulls will not be subject to the additional taxes that kick in on teams exceeding the threshold after this season.
The Bulls also can swap 2015 first-round picks with Cleveland if the Cavs' pick that year falls between 15 and 30 in the first round. Chicago will receive second-round picks from Cleveland in 2015 and 2016 that originally came from Portland.
The Bulls could also get the Cavaliers' second 2014 first-rounder, acquired from Sacramento. But that pick is protected from 12 to 30 for the Kings, meaning if they don't finish with one of the 12 worst records this season, they retain the pick. The protection falls to 10 to 30 for Sacramento from 2015 to 2017. If the Bulls haven't gotten that pick by 2017, they would get Sacramento's second-round pick.
The Bulls will waive Bynum, whose contract for this season does not become guaranteed until 5 p.m. Tuesday, when he would be due the remaining $6 million of the $12 million he was scheduled to receive this season.
Chicago still has Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and will always play hard for coach Tom Thibodeau. But moving Deng is a clear sign that Chicago is shutting down its championship aspirations until Derrick Rose's return from knee surgery next season.
Chicago and Deng's representatives could not reach agreement on a contract extension this past summer, and the 28-year-old Deng indicated that he would explore offers from other teams when he became an unrestricted free agent this coming summer. It was unlikely that Chicago would be able to match Deng's contractual desires, with the Bulls willing to go somewhere near the $12 million per year that Andre Iguodala is getting from Golden State in his four-year deal. Deng, according to sources, was looking for significantly more per year.
The teams had had cursory discussions over the last couple of weeks, but the Bulls, according to a source, came back to the table Sunday afternoon more willing to talk seriously about the deal. Up until then, the Cavaliers were facing the likelihood that they'd get nothing for Bynum, who'd been dismissed from the team and team functions for conduct detrimental Dec. 28.
They'd had numerous discussions with the Lakers about trading Bynum there in a package for Pau Gasol, but the Lakers insisted on getting several pieces, including first-round picks, for Gasol, and the talks stalled, with Gasol, unrestricted himself at season's end, not likely to stick around in Cleveland after the season.
The Cavaliers had a potential deal with Utah for veteran forward Richard Jefferson on the table as well. That was the likely move until Chicago came back into the picture.
The Cavs have struggled with the higher expectations that were on the franchise this season after their strong offseason moves.
They'd added Bennett and free agent guard Jarrett Jack to their core featuring guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, forward Tristan Thompson, center Anderson Varejao and forward/center Tyler Zeller. But Cleveland was just 11-23 through Monday's games, and currently out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
Deng, who's averaging a career-high 19 points this season, solidifies Cleveland's starting five and gives the Cavaliers a premier perimeter defender who can guard the opposition's top wing players. They also need a voice with Deng's authority to help police their locker room, where rumors of dissension between players, primarily centering around Waiters, have been rampant all season.
Assuming they can sign Deng to an extension this summer, the acquisition should also, finally, end any speculation that the Cavs can convince LeBron James to return to Cleveland as a free agent this summer.
The Cavaliers had hoped the structure of Bynum's contract would give them a potential trade chip. And it did; the guarantee created a de facto trade deadline of Tuesday for any team looking to use Bynum's deal solely for cap relief. The Bulls got both cap and tax relief out of the deal, though.
Chicago has been planning for two years to have significant cap flexibility this summer. The Bulls have not yet used their amnesty provision, something they could do with Boozer, who's scheduled to make $16.8 million next season in the final year of his contract.
Doing that would give Chicago a chance to be in play for a major free agent, or have the cap room necessary to acquire one via trade. The Bulls are also expected to bring over big man Nikota Mirotic, their first-round pick in 2010, and who is considered by many to be the best player currently playing in Europe, over from Real Madrid next season.
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