Trade Analysis: Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers

Chicago Bulls get: C Andrew Bynum, a future protected first round pick (conveyed via Sacramento Kings), two 2nd round picks (conveyed via Portland Trail Blazers)
Cleveland Cavaliers get: SF Luol Deng
Although it seemed like an eternity, the “Andrew Bynum” saga, as it were, only played out for less than two weeks.
On December 28th, the former oft-injured Lakers All-Star center got himself suspended from a Cleveland team 10 games under .500 for “conduct detrimental to the team”. Sometimes this very vague violation is code for “this guy was being a disruptive asshole in the locker room” or “he was being disrespectful to the coaching staff” or even “this player is not talented enough for us to put up with his BS”. All of those descriptions really mean the same thing, but the baseline qualifier here is very much the last one: the perpetrator in question doesn’t add enough on the court to balance his being a dick.
As a casual observer of Andrew Bynum for his entire career up until last season when he was a part of a four team trade for Dwight Howard, I can attest that nothing has really changed from what I can tell of his antics in Cleveland. He’s always had this strange, faraway stare in his eyes while addressing anyone, which often extends to a disengaged gaze that’s plastered all across his face while he’s on the court. Bynum might not be immature as much as he’s just a very strange fellow, though the end result of either opinion is the same: he can be a hard teammate to get along with and a harder player to coach.
I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t work out for him in Cleveland. With his injury history, organizations are no longer looking at him like a prospect that a team can grow around or needs to be fostered for future production. He’s been extremely erratic on the court, no doubt a side effect of the ravages his multiple knee surgeries and rehabilitations. Drew himself has expressed that he doesn’t know if it’s even possible to get back to his All-NBA form, a statement which has partially led to the situation he’s in now. His infrequent bursts of talent weren’t at all offsetting what a huge pain in the ass he’s been, a situation which the Cavs smartly thought of when constructing his contract this offseason.

Bynum’s deal was only partially guaranteed if he was cut by today’s 5pm ET deadline, meaning that any team that traded for him could offload any contract similar to Drew’s $12 million dollar deal. Then, after cutting him, would only owe a half of that contract, essentially wiping millions off of their salary cap. This type of deal very rarely happens in the NBA nowadays, giving teams the ability to lower their luxury tax bill that’s tabulated at the end of the season. Thus, no matter where Bynum was traded today, he’d be waived immediately. He’ll get another chance with a team like the Miami Heat or New York Knicks this season, but if that half season audition doesn’t work out, Drew’s NBA career could be in legitimate jeopardy.

For the Lakers, this was obviously a very attractive deal, seeing as the team is slowly floating towards the league’s worst teams and yet, are still paying their roster salaries akin to some of the league’s best teams. The thought was to trade Pau Gasol to the Cavaliers for not only salary cap relief, but also for future assets such as draft picks or young, undeveloped players.

Cleveland balked at this idea, thinking that over $20 million dollars worth of real money savings should be reason enough to make the trade. Apparently, they did not believe that Gasol–who is averaging close to 16 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists per game–was worth anything more than that significant financial carrot.

For Luol Deng, apparently they thought he was worth significantly more than that.

The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of another injury-wracked nightmare season, specifically pertaining to their star, Derrick Rose. With Rose out for the season with yet another knee injury, the organization thought it best to pull the ripcord on this season and start rebuilding in turn for next year. The Bulls are languishing as one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, an awful place to be in any year, but even worse in one of the most laughably bad years for the EC. Thus, Chicago sent out their longest tenured player for three draft picks, including a future protected first rounder via Sacramento.

For the Cavaliers, the reason to trade for Deng instead of Gasol is threefold. First and foremost, Deng’s position at small forward is one that Cleveland is in dire need of shoring up. Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee and 2014 first overall pick Anthony Bennett have been woeful at the 3-spot, providing less than league average production. With Deng, the Cavs now have an All-Star caliber player who is averaging 19/7/4 in yet another great year for the former Duke Blue Devil. If Cleveland had traded for Gasol, they were looking at yet another big man to go along with Anderson Varejao, Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson, each of which are playing well enough not to need a major upgrade offensively.

Secondly, Deng is a vastly superior defender to Gasol, albeit at an entirely different position. Luol is providing his typical stalwart defensive performance this year, brought out of him by the best defensive coach in the game. Meanwhile, Pau continues to age and so with it goes down his defense. Gasol has never been a fantastic defender, nor a true front line rim protector, and has only gotten worse with injuries as a 34 year-old. The Spaniard would have been defensive liability for the Cavs and affected the scheme overall, whereas Deng will not.

Finally, with nearly $30 million in cap room this summer (and perhaps more if they dealt eminently tradeable youngsters like Bennett or Thompson), the Cavaliers could be auditioning to re-sign Deng for the long-haul. It’s an uncommon practice, but some teams, especially from smaller markets, like to bring in players simply to show them that “it’s not that bad here!”. For Deng, this will surely be one of those such auditions. Cleveland has been rumored as a potential destination for LeBron James when he becomes a free agent this summer, but if that falls through, their incumbent small forward would be a very nice fallback option. However, even if the team were to somehow sign James, re-signing Luol alongside him would make for a very athletic, very defensively potent forward combo.

However, for Cleveland, I’m not sure this solves all their issues. The Cavs are one of the worst offensive teams in the league and Deng, despite his gaudy scoring average, isn’t really much of a shot creator or shooter. He’s clanging from the arc this season, with just a .274 3P% and just .426 FG% overall. In that sense, he won’t really help stretch the floor for the Cavs, who only have Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Dion Waiter shooting above league average on threes. Deng might just be another fixture that’s going to clog up the lanes as a slasher, rather than getting their offense to flow more evenly throughout the half court.

There’s no doubt that Cleveland will become a better defensive squad for sure and Deng’s sheer basketball excellence will do wonders for a team that’s been playing Alonzo Gee nearly 20 minutes a night. He’s a very smart player that will adjust to whatever Cleveland’s offense gives him and both his presence and experience should undoubtedly help Cleveland if they make the playoffs. Trading for Deng was a much better deal than dealing for Gasol, simply in that it will help more than hurt. Yes, Gasol is a vastly more talented offensive player, but Cleveland wouldn’t have gotten that full range of effectiveness considering how many minutes Varejao and Thompson use. Also, look at the coach: if Mike Brown really wanted Pau Gasol, who he coached in LA, he’d probably be a Cavalier right now. Defensively, Pau just would hurt Cleveland too much, something Brown usually doesn’t stand for.

I’m still not sure if this was a great trade for the Cavaliers. I’m not a Cleveland fan, nor do I really know any (because I don’t hang out with people that are that sad, all of the time), but from what I gather, it’s a fan base that really needs to become reinvested in a team that’s already shot preseason expectations dead. This was a team that was supposedly to handily make the playoffs in a really awful Eastern Conference. Deng’s talent, despite how ill-fitting it may be to this Cavs squad, should be enough to catapult them the 3 to 4 games needed to get in the postseason picture. I suppose I would pull the trigger on this deal, but giving up a first round pick, no matter what the caveats, is a big price to pay especially if we’re talking about a four month rental player.

For the Bulls, they got a great deal to try and move forward (in any way) out of another completely busted season. They could not afford to simply wait ten more months for Derrick Rose and hold serve, just as they did sixteen months ago. To those that say “well this pick is so heavily protected”–that’s not the point. A draft pick is an asset no matter where it falls. Teams value it, perhaps overly so, to the point where any first round selection is better than even a young undeveloped player. Let’s put it this way–it was this same, protected draft pick that got the Cavaliers a half season of an All-Star player. Pretty good. Moreover, this doesn’t preclude them from re-signing Deng this summer.

This deal is a big win for the Bulls, a slight win for the Cavaliers and an unfortunate loss for the Lakers. They’ll have the chance to deal Gasol in the next month leading up the trade deadline, hopefully for more than just salary relief.


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