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Breaking down the Luol Deng trade

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In case you were under a rock last night (or, doing the sane thing and sleeping after midnight) the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired two-time All-Star Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for center Andrew Bynum, a first round pick (which the Cavaliers acquired in the 2011 Omri Casspi-J.J. Hickson swap) and two second round picks. The Bulls also received the right to swap first round picks with the Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Draft, but only if the pick falls in the 15-30 range. Shams Charania of RealGM.com first reported the trade.

First and foremost, this makes the Cavaliers a instantly better basketball team, one that should be viewed as a legit playoff team that possibly could rise into the 5-7 range and, in the perfect scenario, a little higher. For the first time since LeBron James left in 2011, the Cleveland Cavaliers will have a competent small forward starting for them on a nightly basis. If you have had the pleasure of watching the Wine & Gold play basketball for any extended stretch this season, you’ve seen how bad the Cavaliers are at the three spot. Earl Clark – he who has twice stepped out of bounds in crunch time of close games – is shooting higher from behind the arc than he is in front of it. Alonzo Gee has been done Alonzo Gee things, namely bricking shots with the occasional corner three mixed in for good measure.

Deng instantly makes this a position of non-worry, at least for now. He does everything you want out of your small forward – shooting, ball-handling, defending, etc. In short, he ‘s going to be a competent NBA player at a position where the Cavaliers have not had one for some time now.

And to boot, Deng was an All-Star the last two seasons and a member of the 2012 All-Defensive team. He also comes from a situation in Chicago were he has played with a point guard (Derrick Rose) who, when healthy, is/was a perfect matchup with Deng. When he makes his Cavaliers debut, Deng should fit in seamlessly next to Kyrie Irving. Also, the Cavaliers front court of Tristan Thompon and Anderson Varejao is relatively similar that one he played with in Chicago. Don’t expect a long transition for period for the former Duke Blue Devil as he adjusts to his new teammates.

One aspect to monitor with Deng in Cleveland is how many minutes he plays under Mike Brown, who now has a player who can help him have a more creative and productive offense. Under Tom Thibodeau, Deng played heavy minutes season after season to the point where some have rightly speculated that it has taken a tole on his body and his overall health. For this career, Deng played an average of 35.9 minutes per game, but hasn’t played less than 37 a night since the 2008-2009 campaign. In Cleveland, one would hope that Deng plays a little bit less, keeping him fresher over the course of the season.

Obviously, Deng will start for the Cavaliers at the three spot – that is a given. Considering that Dion Waiters is now coming off the bench, he’ll join Irving, C.J. Miles, Thompson and Varejao in the starting five. As a result, expect the Cavaliers rotation to looking something like this:

Starters: Kyrie Irving, C.J. Miles, Luol Deng, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao

Bench: Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller, Matthew Dellavedova, Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee

Miles, Waiters, Jack and Dellavedova (outside of the obvious drop in playing time for Clark and Gee) will likely have their minutes affected as a result of this trade. Miles, in particular, likely will see his minutes decreased in the next few weeks. He does similar things on the floor to Deng and doesn’t do them nearly as well. And, assuming Miles doesn’t play more at the three spot, I can’t see a scenario where he receives more playing time over Waiters and Jack. This may make him a trade chip for the Cavaliers as the trade deadline approaches, as he has an expiring contract. The same goes for Dellavedova, who now has more competition for time on the wing at both backcourt spots.

Also, the three-guard lineups that the Cavaliers have employed regularly of late will be less frequently used now as well. Deng’s presence alone likely limits their use. I still think that they will be used (possibly with Deng shifting down the four for some small ball lineups) but just less frequently.

This might not be the worst thing for the Cavaliers either, as they don’t need to give up size to have proper offensive fluidity and movement. This is also good for the Cavaliers defense, as Deng upgrades the Cavaliers perimeter defense (which is already defending wings like Paul George with some degree of effectiveness).  For now, the Cavaliers are simply a better team and, barring injury, should be on their way to making the playoffs in the dreadful conference.

Also of note: This shouldn’t impact the minutes of Zeller and Bennett. A deal for Pau Gasol would have taken away key developmental minutes for both, which would have been a mistake. But with this deal, the Cavaliers can develop these young bigs and improve as team. That’s a win-win if I’ve ever seen one.

Now, Deng does not solve all of the Cavaliers problems. Waiters is still not fully ingrained in the roster, Jack hasn’t been very good on the whole and there are other problems that need fixing. But this team is no longer a running joke or a complete mess. This trade changes the perception of the team and that means something.

Long term, this deal has some questions that need to be answered. Deng, whose contract expires at the end of the season, is no lock to re-sign with the Cavs this summer. Before this deal was completed, he rejected a three-year, $30 million dollar extension from the Bulls. He reportedly wants as much as $15 million a season on the open market, but he’s not worth that much per season. Can Chris Grant get him to take a deal worth less money and stick around as the Cavaliers continue to improve? That’s a question that needs to be answered at some point. But still, even if he doesn’t return, the very little the Cavaliers gave up to get Deng for now is worth it, even it just masks the Cavaliers issues for half a season. Deng staying on beyond this season is just a bonus.

As for the man that orchestrated this deal – Chris Grant – this is also a good look for the embattled GM. Out of the three rumored deals, this one makes the most sense on all fronts. He filled the Cavaliers biggest positional need without sacrificing development and without giving up any real assets. This also should help his job security beyond this season, if the deal works out.

Grant hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire with his draft picks and free agent signings, as he’s hit on exactly one move in both area (Irving). Thompson, Waiters and Bennett – his three other lottery selections – all could have been other players, that fair or not, will be what if’s for people grading Grant. In the open market, he’s netted Miles, Clark, Bynum and Jack. The Bynum mess was a worthwhile risk and not an all a mistake now that the Cavaliers used his contract to net Deng and Jack’s signing at the time made sense considering he was coming off the best season of his career.

But in the trade market, Grant has been strong. He first swindled the Clippers into giving up the draft pick that became Kyrie Irving by taking on Baron Davis, whose contract the Cavaliers amnestied after the 2011 lockout. He’s turned Jon Leuer into a first round pick and amassed a ridiculous number of first round picks. And then he used them to net the Cavaliers a real piece, a real veteran who will make the Cavaliers better right now and potentially better  for a few years. That piece, as noted above, was partially acquired by a first round pick Grant received in exchange for J.J. Hickson (who oddly enough, like Bynum, wore the number 21 as a member of the Cavaliers).

Grant still may be on the hot seat here if the Cavaliers can’t make the playoffs, his draft selections cannot fit into the fold or this team totally flops. But this gives him a real chance for Grant to save his job and make up for past mistakes. It doesn’t solve all of the issues the Cavaliers have, but it’s a start and his job is safer than it was a week ago. He couldn’t have asked for much out of the deal.

Grant also did a good job of managing the finances here, as the Cavaliers hold Deng’s Bird Rights and won’t face any cap holds next summer when he is an unrestricted free agent. They didn’t have to take on any expensive contract here in order to add this piece and didn’t pull a Knick move that resulted in a muddled future with salary restrictions. Bynum’s favorable contract made that possible.

And all deals and scenarios considered, this deal was the best possible outcome for the Wine & Gold. They netted a very good small forward improves them right way, increases their playoff chances and makes the franchise as a whole much less of a mess than it was a week ago. Luol Deng becoming the newest member of the Cavaliers is a chance for a team playing below unfair expectations to meet and perhaps pass those expectations. This team now has a chance to make the playoffs and perhaps even make it past the first round.

Some would have preferred the Cavaliers bottom out and attempt to land a pick at the top of the loaded draft next June. I can’t argue with that logic, but this is the next best option and perhaps a better one. Grant didn’t give up much in the grand scheme of things to add a player of Deng’s caliber and the Cavaliers are a better basketball team than they were yesterday.

This was the first step for the Cavaliers as the try to become a real playoff basketball team and one that can be good for the next few years. Their next step and the one after that might be just as interesting. But again, adding Luol Deng was the right move, and for the Cavaliers, it’s a win on all fronts.

Listen to Chris Manning and Trevor Magnotti break down the trade further here.

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Tags: Chris Grant Cleveland Cavaliers Loul Deng

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