It proved to be one of those ugly processes, like the making of laws and sausages or C.J. McCollum in the first quarter Wednesday. But the Bulls Thursday finally achieved their goal from last summer, to add to their projected rejuvenation project another first round draft pick in addition to their own, the latter which appears now like it will be among the highest in this year’s NBA draft.
The Bulls traded at least privately disgruntled forward Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package of basically expendable players, including former Bull Omer Asik, and longtime veterans Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen. Bulls vice president John Paxson said Nelson will be with the team along with Asik while the team considers the future of Allen. With the trade deadline Feb. 8, the Bulls still could make other moves, Paxson confirmed, though nothing significant is likely.
Allen likely will be released if not involved in another transaction. Nelson, also on a one-year veteran’s minimum of about $1.4 million, will be with the team given injuries and illness recently to Kris Dunn. Paxson emphasized the three players from the Pelicans likely will not play much given the Bulls even further commitment to youth and the draft.
Which was all the trade really was about for the Bulls, the acquisition of New Orleans’ first round pick in this draft.
It is protected top five. So unless the Pelicans miss the playoffs and jump up in the lottery, the Bulls will be in the enviable position of moving forward with a preliminary nucleus of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Dunn, two first round picks from this supposedly loaded draft and potential salary cap room for free agents this summer and next depending on contract terms with LaVine.
The Pelicans currently are seventh in the Western Conference. But even with losing DeMarcus Cousins to injury, which prompted them to reach out for Mirotic, New Orleans has a strong chance to make the playoffs because of the Clippers’ moves in trading star Blake Griffin. The Bulls play the Clippers Saturday afternoon.
“I will tell you that the draft asset we acquired in this deal was far and away the best (offer) we got,” Paxson said on a Thursday afternoon conference call with media.
Asik, who left the Bulls as a free agent after the 2011-12 season to sign with Houston, has seen his career crash since then with injuries and illness. He is owed $11.3 million next season and was basically the salary match for Mirotic. He is under contract for 2019-20, but he has a buyout of $3 million for that season. Because of potential salary cap penalties, New Orleans insisted the Bulls take the two veteran guards. The Bulls also had to return a second round draft pick for this season to the Pelicans for the Pelicans to move forward and accept Mirotic’s contract for next season. That had been the delay with the deal as first rumored Tuesday. The Bulls acquired that second round pick from the deal for Quincy Pondexter. The Bulls Thursday released Pondexter to create roster spots for the players from New Orleans.
The Bulls also obtained a $12.5 million trade exception from the Mirotic part with use for a year and believe, with more teams over the salary cap now, the expiring contracts next season of players like Robin Lopez and Asik (with his buyout) could also prove useful in potential transactions.
Mirotic and his representatives had been, as it turns out, advocating for a trade to the Utah Jazz since the preseason fight with Bobby Portis. The Jazz refused to give up a first round draft pick. So if not for Cousins’ injury this might only have gotten more complicated, and perhaps uglier, in the days leading up to the trade deadline next week. Especially since the Bulls pulled Mirotic from the lineup in Portland to avoid injury while specifically saying they were working on trades. It’s difficult to imagine a player returning to a team after such a circumstance.
“What I’ll tell you is that Niko’s representatives were consistent over the last several months that they wanted him moved,” said Paxson. “They never backed off that stance one bit. I’m sure that given everything we heard throughout this entire process this satisfies what he wanted. More than that, it satisfies what we wanted to get out of it in moving him. It fits our timeline. It fits the direction we’re going.”
The Bulls aren’t about to gloat about giving up their leading scorer this season for a backup center who likely will not play much. But it probably couldn’t be a better scenario for the Bulls given the uncomfortable summer negotiations with Mirotic. When the sides came to an impasse with Mirotic a restricted free agent, Mirotic decided to play out his option to leave after this season. Instead, the Bulls worked out the two-year deal with a team option to perhaps be able to acquire something without losing Mirotic for nothing if it came to that.
Both sides likely would have preferred to avoid the intermediate events, but the Bulls did get what could be exciting value with a draft pick this year likely to be perhaps in the 15 to 20 range in what is expected to be a healthy draft.
Because there was that second year team option, Mirotic could veto any trade because the deal was then strictly one year, which effectively extends a no-trade option. That proved the delay since Tuesday when rumors leaked. And the sides seemed to justifiably harden.
The Bulls probably said something like, “You asked all season for us to trade you. We finally did and now you say no?”
Mirotic probably said something like, “Without that second year, I lose Bird rights for my team to resign me over the cap. Without that I don’t have much bargaining power.”
But with Cousins out likely into the middle of next season, the Pelicans became more willing to make the commitment. There also are rumors they could add New Orleans native Greg Monroe, who became a free agent in a buyout with the Suns. That presumably would further enhance New Orleans’ playoff chances and the Bulls’ of getting the draft pick this June.
Though Mirotic, 26, truly never was in the team’s long term plans once they made the Butler trade, the Bulls played their best this season with his return from the facial injuries after missing 23 games. Mirotic was the team’s leading scorer and three-point shooter even coming off the bench. And the Bulls had a winning record in games he played after winning seven straight and 10 of 12 with his December return.
“We’ve got to look long term,” said Paxson. “As we mapped out what Niko would be looking for financially, especially going out (after next season), that wasn’t a part of our timeline. We now have a situation where we’re invested in these young guys. Our focus remains on growth and development of them. This is consistent with what we set out to do on draft night.”
It also sets the 18-33 Bulls on a course for a closing stretch of losses these last two months of the season. The Bulls currently have lost five straight and Paxson emphasized the commitment not only is to the young players, but to young players who haven’t been playing this season. The Bulls currently are tied for the sixth poorest record in the NBA. They are six and a half games out of a playoff spot and three games better than league worst Atlanta.
“It means that Bobby (Portis) is going to continue to get great opportunity,” said Paxson. “It means from this point on, I think you’ll see Paul Zipser will get an opportunity to play more. Cris Felicio will be playing more. When you look at where we’re at in the season, the record that we have, we have to continue to find out about our young players. This type of deal allows us to get Paul and Cris out on the floor more than they have all season long. It’s our job to evaluate what they are and who fits into our future. The only way you do that is by seeing them out on the court. With Kris Dunn obviously still slow from recovering from the concussion he had, we’re starting to get Cameron Payne into some practices and we have a timeline for him. Somewhere around or after the All-Star break we’ll be looking at him as well. What we’ve done all plays into the consistency of our direction and the plan we put into place.
“Whatever we decide to do with these (new) players, the fact is we’re going to expect them to come in and be professional,” Paxson added. “Playing time will not be a premium for them given our direction. We’re flying Omer Asik and Jameer Nelson to Los Angeles to meet up with the team. Tony Allen we have not made a decision on. But it’s obvious that the age of the players does not fit our timeline. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to take into consideration a guy like Jameer, who has been a solid pro all of his career. There’s value in having him around the team. So we’re going to be patient. The trade deadline is still a week away, so we still have some time to kind of determine and figure out how we want to deal with the three players we did acquire.’’
The deal also ends a hopeful, if not fulfilled, prospect for the 6-11 Mirotic, who was a prized draft pick in 2011 when the Bulls worked feverishly to move up to draft him. They had Miami’s pick from the James Johnson trade at No. 28 and then exchanged that with a second rounder and cash to move ahead of Oklahoma City, who also had targeted Mirotic, voted a Europe league rising star. The Thunder then took Reggie Jackson. The Bulls then used their No. 30 pick in that draft for Jimmy Butler.
Mirotic remained three more years in Europe to avoid the NBA rookie scale as a low first round pick, his skills marinating and creating a hunger for him with the Bulls, a seven-foot shooting prospect who defined the new NBA. He then signed a three-year contract with the Bulls in the summer of 2014 after being Spanish league MVP.
It was a bumpy start under the demanding and rookie averse coach Tom Thibodeau. But Mirotic didn’t disappoint as he was runner-up for Rookie of the Year when he was the league’s leading fourth quarter scorer down the stretch of the season in March. He was one of the league’s best players that month, averaging 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. But his second season was first interrupted by the controversy of Joakim Noah going to a backup role while he started with Pau Gasol, then an uncomfortable time at small forward to accommodate starting Taj Gibson and then an emergency appendectomy and followup surgery. Then last season came the Byzantine roster, a lack of faith from stars like Butler and Dwayne Wade, Mirotic even bounced from the rotation so the team could play Joffrey Lauvergne. Though again Mirotic had a late season renaissance with three games of 28-points in a four-game stretch and back to back games of a team record six three pointers.
But by then the Bulls’ game plan changed. Mirotic was always considered part of that previous group, which was essentially disassembled with the Butler trade. With the acquisition of the three young players from the Timberwolves with the Markkanen draft pick, the Bulls were no longer in position to make a long term financial commitment to Mirotic.
Their playing and financial priorities evolved to accommodate the new trio as well as the proposed additions from the next two drafts and free agency. You can only pay a limited number of top young players the way NBA finances work these days, and the Bulls effectively committed to LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen and the flexibility to dip into free agency.
Plus, after three seasons in which his play continued to be inconsistent, though with circumstances, Mirotic as a restricted free agent last summer was unable to get any substantial offers. The Bulls reportedly offered a three-year contract at about $12 million annually, which Mirotic rejected seeking substantially more. Unable to find another offer, Mirotic said he’d play out his option at about $7 million to become a free agent in 2018 and leave.
Then came the most unexpected, the Portis preseason punch that probably assured the split. Portis was suspended eight games, but Mirotic missed 23. He never quite forgave Portis, though they played well together and Mirotic never offered a public hint of personal dismay.
“It was a very unfortunate thing that happened,” agreed Paxson. “I thought Niko handled it really, really well. When he came back he played terrific and with confidence. He never used that in any way, shape or form. He deserves a lot of credit for how he handled that. The reality is from that day forward, his reps have told us what they thought and what they expected. Our goal in order to move him was to get a draft asset that we thought was valuable to us.”
Though Mirotic played well with Portis and seemed to fit going forward with Markkanen as potentially a dual big man shooting front court, both sides continued to grow apart. With Markkanen’s development, the Bulls considered Mirotic less a part of their future. And Mirotic, never speaking to Portis, felt his value was being inhibited coming off the bench in changing situations and rotations. Though the split probably was realized with the lack of a contract agreement last summer.
The Bulls still hoped to get something in return. The delay in the New Orleans talks continued to be Mirotic seeking the second year guaranteed. Without that, he could block a trade. Once it was accepted by the Pelicans, a deal could proceed and he would, effectively, be accepting the contract he rejected last summer from the Bulls. It was clear by now Mirotic last summer had overestimated his value in the market. The Bulls figure was more appropriate. With the Bulls committed to their new trio and free agency, the finances didn’t make sense for a reserve player despite Mirotic’s excellent play in his return. Plus, Mirotic still believes he should be an NBA starter and his position is occupied by Markkanen.
Perhaps Mirotic is right about starting, and it seems he’ll have that chance to find out in free agency after next season when Cousins presumably returns to New Orleans.
“When Niko did come back he played with great confidence, he played very well and because of that I think his value was as high as it’s ever been,” said Paxson. “So I’m sure that played a part in it. Even though we understood that Niko didn’t want to be here given his concerns or whatever, we were still going to do what was in our best interest. We feel we’ve done that. For us it’s a good situation and for Niko it’s going to be a good situation. He’s going to be going to a team that’s fighting for the playoffs; he gets to play with one of the great players in the league (Anthony Davis). So for New Orleans it’s a really good deal. It’s consistent with our direction, and good for us as well.’’
Meanwhile, the prospects for much Bulls on court success the rest of this season seem dim, which likely will keep the Bulls in prime position for a high draft pick as well as probably having the Pelicans’ draft pick.
It wasn’t a very straight line to that outcome. But if the Bulls 2017-18 blueprint were available, it’s likely it wouldn’t be much different from what has occurred.
Just not quite the way it happened.