Luol Deng is out in Chicago! In return the Bulls are getting Andrew Bynum and a glut of mediocre draft picks. Deng is a good player, so you'd think I'd be mad at Chicago, right? Wrong! I don't consider this move tanking because it is transforming one asset into more valuable ones.
I'm a fan of Luol Deng. He's been a good player for most of his career. Still, if we look at his production, he hasn't really been a star player in years. The cutoff I typically use for a player is 10 wins. Deng hit this twice during his rookie contract, but has never returned.
Deng dealt with injuries in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he was healthy, but not quite as good as he was as a younger player. Deng in fact appears to be leveling off. He'll be 29 at the end of the season, which may still seem young, but he's already played ten seasons in the NBA. Hence, I'm skeptical that he'll ever be a top player again.
There's another issue with Deng's long NBA tenure: NBA salaries work based on seniority. Older players are eligible to earn more money. We can see that Deng's contract value has been steadily rising, while his production has stagnated. Deng is up for a contract extension at the end of this season, and he'll likely be pricey, especially as he's a scorer, and those tend to fetch more money on the open market (see Detroit for some examples).
So Deng is older, only a good (not great) player, and likely to command an expensive contract. The Bulls could just play out the season and let him walk (or worse, re-sign him) but they didn't. Deng still had trade value and the Bulls took full advantage of it. With Butler healthy again and Dunleavy playing the most minutes he has in years, the Bulls can still compete this season. In addition, they get to make sure they don't lose Deng for nothing.
The Trade Value
In return for Deng, the Bulls get the following:
- Andrew Bynum
- The right to swap picks with Cleveland this season.*
- The Portland Trail Blazers 2015 and 2016 Second Round Draft Picks
- A Sacramento Draft Pick (we'll get to this.)**
Obviously Andrew Bynum is a wash. This is purely to make the salaries match. As Bynum's contract wasn't fully guaranteed, this works out fine. The right to swap picks with Cleveland this year is interesting because it's lottery protected. Let's say the Deng rental limps Cleveland into the playoffs in a worse seed than Chicago. Then the Bulls may be entitled to a slightly better pick this season. Cleveland is currently six games out of a playoff spot, and even with Deng, I'm not optimistic.
That leaves the other picks. The Sacramento pick is heavily protected over the next two seasons. If Sacramento remains a lottery team in three seasons, it turns into a second round pick in the 2017 draft. What this means is it is likely Chicago turned Deng into an extra second round draft pick for the next three seasons.
I think this is fine, for several reasons. First, teams are still terrible at the draft; there is still talent to be found late. Second, teams should really only spend their money on top tier players. The Bulls have Noah and Butler (I refuse to give any optimism to Rose until he shows me at least 40 games), which means they've handled the hard part of getting really good players. The key now is to spend their money wisely. There is no smarter way to fill a roster than with draft picks. Rookie contracts are absurdly good values. If it were more than 50 games of Deng in a season where the east was so bad several losing teams get playoff spots I might disagree. This season though, the Bulls fleeced Cleveland for a player that probably won't help them long term.
The Bulls are looking to amnesty Boozer in the offseason. This will likely give them around ten million in cap space to play with. This means they can try and sign some good players (Monroe and Sefolosha will be on the market) and then use their draft picks to fill out the roster. This is a great place to be. Now, it's always possible for a team to be in a good position and mess it up. The Bulls are no strangers here. That said, I think they made the right play. They rented an overpriced asset -- remember something can still be good and cost too much (I'm a Mac user, I should know!) -- and are set up to improve their team. It's the right way to run things.