It's been six days and three games since the Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a period distinct by a proverbial roller coaster of sports-based emotions from what's left of the wreckage. There was angsty silence, emotional reflection, and, of course, the unsurprising default to an "us against the world" mentality coming from coach Tom Thibodeau and his players. It's clear the Deng trade resonated with the team in a way very few transactions have in recent memory, but the play on the floor has hardly been affected: the Bulls are on a five-game winning streak and 3-0 since the deal, having now won eight of their last 10 games.
Three games is a dangerously small sample size to draw conclusions from, but it already feels safe saying the 'swing' asset in the Deng deal won't be paying off. That would be the Bulls' own draft pick directly tied to their overall record. Chicago is now up to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, just one game below .500, and are in the midst of a cupcake stretch on the schedule. The slate is very manageable until a trip out West in February. What we're seeing, I think, is that the Bulls can essentially compete with any team in the conference this side of Indiana and Miami. Even if it may be in the best long term interest of the franchise to make that draft pick as high as possible, it feels like it's not going to happen. Our tank dreams (delusions?) are probably dead.
What's left in the aftermath of the Deng trade is "financial flexibility", a phrase usually lauded in NBA circles but one that feels like a pejorative when tied to the Bulls. We know how this team does "financial flexibility"; it's usually a mix of money going straight into ownership's pockets or maybe to a light-hitting third baseman. There's real history here that shouldn't be discounted, however you can't ignore that the Bulls really might be in a good place. There's a lot of different ways Gar Forman and John Paxson can go to build this team into a contender again, and it's going to occupy a lot of the chatter around the team from now until the merciful end of this season.
To me, the money saved in the Deng trade -- reportedly around $20 million -- seemed easy to ticket. It was a way for the organization to justify amnestying Carlos Boozer and the remaining $16.8 million left on his contract this summer. That would give the Bulls enough space under the salary cap to sign the man they drafted three years ago, Real Madrid forward Nikola Mirotic. However, since a trip to Spain to meet with Mirotic and the ensuing Deng trade, Bulls management has downplayed the idea of bringing Mirotic over next season.
Paxson says Mirotic is still part of Bulls' future but organization is not as confident as it was before about bringing him over this summer— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 7, 2014
Forman has done this, too:
Nikola is a terrific player and an unbelievable guy. It went very well, we got to spend some real quality time with him, which is nice. He's under contract for another year with Real Madrid. He's got a large buyout at this time. When he comes over, we're not sure of at this time, but I do think at some point he will come over. And when he does, he's a player that is going to be a very, very good player at the NBA level.
The issue, it seems, is Mirotic's buyout, which is reportedly around $3.44 million, of which the Bulls are limited to paying $600,000 (anything more counts against the cap, in that if the Bulls pay Mirotic a large first-year salary it can go towards the buyout. If he signed for the mid-level exception he'd be playing on a substantial pay-cut from what he's making in Spain). Forman called the buyout "prohibitive" and Paxson said it's "a significant issue for one more year". This is, of course, rather infuriating. Just pay it! Furthermore, I'm not sure when the Bulls are going to have the cap space again to ink Mirotic. It would be impossible to justify rolling over what's left of the current cap space after Jimmy Butler's extension without making a commitment in free agency.
What the Bulls should do is easy, and that's amnesty Boozer and do whatever it takes to bring Mirotic over. What they will do is another matter.
If Mirotic really is stuck abroad for another season or three, and if Boozer finally gets axed, the Bulls will have salary cap space. If the Bulls move Mike Dunleavy (an argument worth having, as it's going to be tough to replace his production for $3 million next season when the team wants to compete), they can get to $13,287,793 in cap space, per Mark Deeks. That's not an insignificant amount of money. How should the Bulls use it?
I feel like we can stop getting caught up in the LeBron hype train. That's not happening. Same probably goes for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, unless James really does leave and the Heat's entire structure falls apart. Carmelo Anthony is the biggest name on the market, but you probably don't want to be the team that gives Melo a four- or five-year max extension that starts when he's 30 years old. The rest of the free agency market is pretty barren, and please don't throw out the idea of bringing Deng back. That's not going to happen, either.
There's only one name worth throwing all of your money at if Mirotic doesn't come over, and that's Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
Trust that there's going to be a lot of competition for Stephenson this offseason. He'll be a rare 23-year-old unrestricted free agent, and he's taken a huge leap forward this year. Read what my colleague Jonathan Tjarks wrote about him recently. He's going to draw an offer north of $11 million per season, and he very well may get a max offer from a team like the Hawks or Bobcats. The Pacers will likely do some trimming around the edges to try to keep him, but we know Indiana does not want to pay the luxury tax. As such, there's a chance Stephenson can be pried away from Indiana with an expensive offer.
I'm sure this will cause some debate here, but to me, he's worth it.
Go all the way back to Joe Johnson's decision to leave Phoenix for Atlanta: there's a young player almost every year who flees for a bigger opportunity and makes the most of it. James Harden and Eric Bledsoe are the two most recent examples. There's the issue that this remains Derrick Rose's team and that Stephenson wouldn't be "the man" here, but he would likely see an increased role. Plus, Stephenson fixes a lot of the problems that have plagued the Bulls forever.
Now, just to be clear: I really don't think the Bulls are going to sign Lance Stephenson, and free agency is generally a wildly overrated way of building a team. More often than not, big money free agents disappoint. But if the Bulls aren't going to bring Mirotic over, I don't see a more sensible thing to do with the money than sign someone who has the chance to be the best shooting guard in the league next season. Yes, that's Lance Stephenson.
Listen: basketball is a two-way game. James Harden is brilliant offensively, but he might be the worst perimeter defender in the NBA, and that's no exaggeration. Stephenson is a monster defensively, and his offensive skill set is remarkably complete. He can get to the rim without a problem. He's a great playmaker, acting as the point guard in Indiana's reserve units this year. He's averaging an absurd 6.7 rebounds per game at shooting guard. The guy just affects the game in so many different ways.
Problem is, Stephenson is taking only 11 shots per game this year, while making 50 percent. If he jumps into the top 30 in field goal attempts per game, about 15 per night, he's going to be putting up gigantic numbers. Look at the rest of the shooting guards around the league. I really don't think it's too crazy to suggest the devastating two-way nature of his game would make him the best two in the NBA as soon as next season, when he turns 24 years old.
Of course, this is all just conjecture at this point, but that's all we've really got left. It would be nice if the Bulls just overpaid Mirotic some to get him on the team next season. If they don't, trading Deng might not look like a great choice when Rose returns and the team wants to compete. I'm sure that Stephenson idea will be controversial, but what would be better to do with the money if Mirotic stays in Spain?
These are the things Forman and Paxson have to think about, and things I would hope were factored into the Deng trade. It already feels dangerous putting so many eggs into Mirotic's basket, but it's hard to say he hasn't justified it with his play. Yes, the Bulls have "flexibility" now. What they do with it is really what's important.