By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
INDEPENDENCE: The playoffs have long been the stated goal for this season, but even Cavaliers coach Mike Brown conceded Tuesday he felt the season slipping away. With one trade, the Cavs filled their biggest need and reintroduced themselves to the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
The Cavs acquired Luol Deng early Tuesday morning from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Andrew Bynum’s unique contract, a heavily protected future first-round pick from the Sacramento Kings and two second-round picks. The Bulls also have the right to swap places with the Cavs in the 2015 draft, but only if the Cavs make the playoffs. The swap right expires after that draft.
The Cavs turned 24 games of Bynum into Deng, a 28-year-old, two-time All-Star and arguably the best small forward available on the trade market.
“We’re bringing in a player who’s an All-Star in his prime who epitomizes all the things that we’re trying to build as a foundation with this young group of players, fits a position of need, has a winning background, leadership,” Cavs General Manger Chris Grant said. “Obviously he comes from a strong defensive system. He has a strong defensive presence himself, leading scorer of his team. So it’s an exciting time for us.”
The Bulls are sixth in the East, 4 games ahead of the floundering Cavs, but these are two teams clearly headed in opposite directions. The Bulls have given up on the season following another injury to Derrick Rose, and the Cavs’ quest to return to the playoffs after a three-year absence was pushed into overdrive.
Brown said he felt the season was slipping away, “from the standpoint that we were 1 game out and now we’re 3 games out. … But as I told them, the good part about it is if we keep getting better as we are, being in the East, you never feel like you’re out of it.”
Deng is a 10-year veteran averaging a career-high 19 points and 6.9 rebounds. He is another veteran leader with playoff experience, something the Cavs’ locker room desperately needs. He’s a terrific defender and has the reputation of being tremendous in the locker room.
“The professionalism that he brings to the table, that’s one of the things that you hear first when people mention Luol Deng,” Brown said. “It’s second to none, and I’m excited to be around it.”
Deng was on the phone with the Cavs in the early hours of Tuesday morning and is trying to get to Cleveland from Chicago, but the weather and travel delays aren’t helping. Even if he arrives in time, he isn’t expected to play tonight when the Cavs host the Philadelphia 76ers.
Now the Cavs will begin the process of trying to re-sign him.
Deng rejected a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Bulls on Friday, Yahoo Sports reported, which expedited his move out of Chicago. He has spent his entire career with the Bulls and leaves fourth on the team’s all-time scoring list behind Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love.
Josh Smith signed as a free agent last summer for $13.5 million a year with the Detroit Pistons. That is likely a good starting point for negotiations with Deng.
“Right now our goal is to get Luol here, get him comfortable, help him transition into our team,” Grant said. “He’s only played in Chicago his whole career so this is a big transition for him and helping him settle in is important. Once we get through all that then we can sit down and talk about what the future looks like.”
Deng’s agent is Herb Rudoy, who also represented Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who now works in the Cavs’ front office.
The Bulls, as expected, waived Bynum on Tuesday afternoon. They will owe him nothing and shave $12 million off their cap. Since they are $7.7 million over the luxury tax, that’s significant. They will save the balance of Deng’s $14 million contract for this season, plus $13.5 million in luxury taxes.
When the Cavs signed Bynum last summer, it was a unique and complicated contract that took days to complete. Grant protected the organization in case the arrangement didn’t work, giving himself a creative trade bullet to fire this week.
“I don’t necessarily think anything went wrong [with Bynum],” Grant said. “We were able to turn his contract into Luol Deng. So I would say that was a good thing.”
Grant credited Bynum with moving to Cleveland last summer and working so hard to get back on the floor. Once Bynum is released, he’ll be free to sign with any team after clearing waivers.
“We wish him the best,” Grant said. “I hope he continues to play, but that’s his decision.”
Grant and Bulls General Manger Gar Forman are close. The Cavs have coveted Deng and began checking on his availability when Rose went down with another knee injury early in the season. They were told he wasn’t available, but after Deng rejected the Bulls’ extension offer last week, talks intensified in recent days.
The first-round pick the Cavs are sending was acquired in the J.J. Hickson deal that also brought Omri Casspi to Cleveland. It is top-12 protected in this summer’s draft and top-10 protected from 2015-17. It becomes a second-round pick in 2017.
The second-round picks are from the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2015 and 2016 drafts. The Cavs acquired them during last summer’s draft night.
“I think it continues to send the type of message that, ‘Hey, we are trying to establish a culture of defense and winning and accountability and toughness’ and I think that Luol exemplifies all of those things that we’re in the process of establishing in that foundation,” Grant said. “I think those guys hear and see that message loud and clear.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.