This article was due to run on Monday on another site. However, it seems as though there can be no delay.
Andrew Bynum’s time in Cleveland is all but over. After a poor first few months on the court, in which he has looked awful at times in trying to recover from serious knee problems, a recent suspension for off-court behaviour has seen him essentially placed on gardening leave, while Cleveland tries to find a new home for him and his contract. And they likely will.
Cleveland signed Bynum for two reasons. Firstly, to potentially land themselves a quality player at a position of weakness – Bynum’s interior game on both ends once made him one of the best big men in the league, and based on age alone, he should still be short of his prime. And secondly, for the value – even at $24.6 million dollars over two years, Bynum nevertheless represented value if he didn’t work out on the court, based on the nature of his contract. Primarily, though, they wanted him to produce.
Bynum, however, has not been able to produce. Save for a couple of strong outings, he has mostly looked like a shadow of his former self, still playing in severe pain and looking just as painful as he is said to be feeling. His inability to play through the kind of severe pain that would lead to most of us taking several months work has unfortunately led to ugly (and apparently open season) speculation about his ‘love’ of the game, for it is always easier to blame someone for things, yet whatever we think of Bynum’s commitment to the game, one thing seems apparent by this time – the former Andrew Bynum, the second best centre in the league, is not coming back.
Few other offseason moves have worked out, either, and the Cavaliers have found themselves off to a disappointing 10-21 start. Most notably, #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett is off to a horrific start to his NBA career, shooting 28% from the field and looking utterly lost and overwhelmed. After his great climax to last season, Jarrett Jack has regressed to his career means with sedate averages of 10 and 4, whilst the other big summer signing, Earl Clark, has gone from being a player who could do a little bit of everything except shoot to a fairly one dimensional (albeit efficient) one dimensional shooter who no longer wishes to use his good passing skills. The efficient, capable, sweet-shooting Matthew Dellavedova has been a good third string point guard pick-up, and Henry Sims has pretty much outplayed Bennett in his limited minutes to date, but with draftees Sergei Karasev and Carrick Felix offering nothing so far, the Cavaliers’ offseason acquisitions have been mostly underwhelming. And because of this, the team has been underwhelming.
Karasev, Felix, Bennett and the others can be waited on. But not so Bynum. The nature of his contract essentially meant he was auditioning between the date of his signing and now, an audition he has failed, and so action may quickly be taken. In a unique contract, Bynum’s deal calls for a $12,250,000 salary this season, of which only $6 million is guaranteed. Next season’s salary of $12,540,000 is fully unguaranteed – therefore, a two year commitment was really a six month commitment. And the six months is up.
The contract is not exactly genius, for it calls for potentially huge liabilities for a player offering little, or worse had things gone badly. It does however give the Cavaliers options with Bynum – either to trade him to another team for significant financial savings, waive him themselves for those savings, or potentially even let his contract guarantee for this season and then use the 2014/15 unguaranteed salary as further trade bait between April and October. This latter option would cost Cleveland $6.25 million to do, but it would give them great leverage and a huge time frame in which to find the right pieces for their team. It is said that this is something they are prepared to do. Before then, however, they are shopping him aggressively before the January 10th guarantee deadline. And it seems they have gotten a bite.
It appears that a Bynum trade for Pau Gasol is in an advanced stage, and may be completed today. The ever-declining Gasol (who offensive production and efficiency has tailed away alarmingly over the last three seasons, as has his defence) gives Cleveland an aged, declining, healthy veteran on an expiring contract to replace the aged, declining, unhealthy veteran on a de facto expiring contract, so it is in that sense an upgrade, if not a huge one. But it does little to assuage Cleveland’s main positional weakness, the wing spots. With Miles’s mediocre production, Karasev’s slow start and Alonzo Gee’s offensive game having seemingly regressed beyond all recognition, Cleveland has only Clark and the talented if frustrating Dion Waiters on the wings, with very little at small forward. The Cavaliers need a capable two-way player, a finisher for Kyrie Irving to find and a defender for either spot with high IQ, low maintenance play. They need Luol Deng, basically. And supposedly, with this in mind, they offered Bynum for him.
Chicago, supposedly, said no to this core construct of a deal. I posit that they shouldn’t have.
The idea of a one-club man is a romanticised ideal in sports, yet one increasingly impossible to achieve in this heightened free agency era. Even Paul Pierce eventually got traded. However, it does occasionally happen, and Luol Deng is one of the few true veterans in this league to have spent his whole career with one team. Indeed, the only players to have been with their current teams longer than Deng has been with Chicago are Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Nick Collison, the Miami duo of Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade, and the Spurs trio of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, while Jameer Nelson and Anderson Varejao are the only other 2004 draftees to have never left the team that first signed them. This kind of longevity, then, is rare – usually, one party is sufficiently disgruntled with the other by now to have moved on.
Things haven’t always been plain sailing between Deng and Chicago. The contract which is about to expire was only arrived at in the first place via an ugly and terse negotiations period, while injury-related strife – most notably the Bulls’s failure to diagnose a broken leg – has sullied the waters at times. Nevertheless, the Bulls declined this trade supposedly on account of their desire to re-sign Deng. They are said to really, really want that.
This desire to keep Deng is tough to reconcile alongside the news that extension talks are dead. Nonetheless, it seems genuine, if only because it is so logical. Deng is a quality player on the court, a player who makes the most of limited natural ability, and an absolute favourite of Tom Thibodeau on account of his reliability, defensive versatility and high IQ play. These are all things the Bulls prioritise more than most. They are right to want to keep him.
Despite this, they shouldn’t. This is a Bulls team in the midst of a mini-implosion. As of today, they are 14-18, with their best player about to miss his second consecutive season due to injury, a heavily strained coach/front office relationship, and an injury prone roster looking increasingly threadbare for depth. They will make the playoffs in this diluted Eastern conference, yet it will mean little – this is not a contender. Without advocating the tank – no team should ever play to lose – this is a team that needs, and can achieve, a quick reload.
As I have written about many times this season, getting good and staying good are two different facets of team building that are as important as each other. The Bulls got good, but due to injuries, have not been able to stay good – nonetheless, they are uniquely positioned to be able to get good again very quickly. In between Nikola Mirotic (arguably the best player in Europe), Jimmy Butler (a player whose poor start to this season belies his versatility and effectiveness), and the still outstanding first-round draft pick from the Charlotte Bobcats, the Bulls are already armed with an incredibly strong core for the future. Add to that the returning Rose (to some standard to be determined), Tony Snell, this year’s first-round pick and an apexing frontcourt duo of Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, the Bulls can be a 55 win team again very soon, for less than the cost of the previous 55 win team, with more youth, and better health.
Trading Deng is a part of that process. If the Bulls re-sign Deng, they will retain a quality player, but for a significant price as he starts his decline. They will keep the rare one club man, the perfect citizen, the loved elite role player who survived multiple down times with the team and came out of them all stronger than before, but they might worsen their basketball product in the process. Deng can be traded for assets, assets helpful for much longer than he could ever be. This should be a priority now.
Cleveland is armed with future assets. They have all their draft picks in future years, plus a whopping seven owed to them by others – four second rounders (2014 Memphis; 2014 Orlando; 2015 and 2016 Portland) and three protected first rounders (2014 Sacramento; 2015 Miami; 2015 Memphis). They do not need all of these if only for the simple reason they will run out of roster space. What they need is to consolidate these assets into a quality player. If they traded Bynum, the Memphis first rounder, and another asset (perhaps Tyler Zeller) for Deng, and concurrently signed him to an extension in the $11-$12 million range that the Bulls supposedly won’t stretch to, the Cavaliers would get themselves a fringe All-Star locked in for years at a position where they have only backup calibre players, all for the cost of an otherwise waivable contract, a non-lottery first and a backup centre. Chicago, meanwhile, would dodge the tax (it ought be reiterated that Bynum is being traded for to be waived, not for his uses as a player), gain two young prospects, save themselves incalculable amounts of money, and, freed from the burden of Deng’s contract or cap hold, make themselves hugely significant players in next year’s free agent after an amnesty of Carlos Boozer. Even moreso with a surely possible Mike Dunleavy Jr trade.
A front five of Rose, Butler, Mirotic, Gibson and Noah is good both now and in the future. Arm it with maximum cap room, Zeller and Snell, perhaps another asset from Cleveland, all its own draft picks in all years, and two outstanding first rounders from others, and the reload is completed as quick as that. They likely won’t draft someone as good as Deng, they’d do well to sign someone as good as him, and the loss of Boozer should not be underappreciated. The need to stay good, however, advocates some cost-cutting and some youth.
They can re-sign Deng to get good again, or they can trade him to stay good. In doing so, they can dodge the tax and gain a basketball asset. PR wise, it is a tough sell. But basketball wise, it is far more digestable. They won’t do it, but for the right complimentary assets, they should.