The reality in the NBA with the new collective bargaining agreement is that, try as front offices may, financial decisions ultimately outweigh basketball decisions when franchises believe it can no longer compete for a championship in the short-term.
That led general manger Gar Forman, vice president John Paxson and the Bulls to make the “very difficult” decision to trade Luol Deng, which they did early Tuesday morning to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three draft picks.
The trade rids the Bulls of Deng’s $14.3 million contract. That move, combined with waiving Bynum’s $12.25 million contract, will put the Bulls under the luxury tax threshold, a penalty which they paid for the first time in franchise history last season.
Paxson, the Bulls' vice president of basketball operations, noted that it would have been “impossible” to trade Deng for his worth as a player because of his expiring contract and desire to test free agency after this season. Still, the Bulls feel they gained significant flexibility in the deal.
“The ability to be in the game with a future first (round pick), that possibility was intriguing as well. The bottom line, from our standpoint, was after we felt we were too far apart to get anything done with Luol, this deal seemed to make a lot of sense to us,” Paxson said. “And we believe it will put us in a position to be aggressive going forward when given that opportunity, and we will.”
Within that, Paxson said the Bulls will use the financial flexibility and breathing room to improve the team. Whether that means being active in free agency this offseason or trading for a significant return, he put the responsibility on the front office to continue making moves to have something to show for Deng’s departure.
“The onus is on us. When you get financial flexibility, you have to use that the right way. You have to spend money wisely and when you have draft picks, you have to make the right decisions. And that is our organizational challenge and we’re confident we’ll be in a position to make our basketball team better.”
That could potentially mean using the amnesty clause on power forward Carlos Boozer. The 32-year-old Boozer will make $16.8 million next season, and reports from the New York Daily News have said the Bulls will look to rid themselves of that money this offseason. Paxson said the front office has not made a decision on whether they will do so, and will not consider it until the offseason.
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“It’s a decision that will be made, but it’s not being made today. It will be made at some point. You can’t do it now,” Paxson said. “I think Carlos gets sometimes a little bit of unfair criticism. When you think about the last three, four years, the one player who has practiced every day, played almost every game, come in the practice facility with a positive attitude, it’s Carlos Boozer. And he’s been good to our team.”
The real wild card in the deal is the potential to move up in the draft. In addition to Bynum’s contract, the Bulls received a conditional first-round pick from Cleveland (through Sacramento) and the right to swap picks with the Cavaliers if it falls outside the Lottery in 2014. They also received two future second-round picks in the deal.
The Kings pick is protected in the Top 12 this season, and then the Top 10 from 2015 to 2017. Paxson joked that the Bulls will be cheering for Sacramento going forward, as the pick becomes a second rounder after 2017 if the Kings are still selecting in the Top 10.
In addition to owning the Bobcats’ protected pick – which becomes unprotected in 2016 – as well as a young core that includes Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and Joakim Noah, Paxson said the personnel and assets are there for the Bulls to build for the future.
“It will give Jimmy Butler a year where he needs to continue to grow, and he’ll get that opportunity. Tony Snell is a young player that we drafted who will now get significant minutes, and we’ll find out more about him and he will find out a lot about himself as a basketball player,” he said. “These things can help you in the future.”
From a basketball standpoint, losing Deng cripples the Bulls' already-slim hopes of contending for a title this season. But Paxson, who spoke highly of everything Deng did for the organization the last 10 seasons, said that, looking at the bigger picture, the team has put itself in a position to build for the future with multiple assets and financial flexibility.
[WATCH -- Paxson: Deng leaves lasting impact on Bulls]
“When we are sitting here this summer and are looking at our options to get better,” he said, “I think we’ll be in a better place than had we not done this.”