Luol Deng trade: Cavaliers trade minor assets for major improvement

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland turned the non-guaranteed contract of Andrew Bynum and a few minor assets into the help they needed at small forward.

The Cleveland Cavaliers moved on from flirting with the Los Angeles Lakers and Pau Gasol and found a way to land Luol Deng by sending Andrew Bynum to the Chicago Bulls. It was a subtle shift -- from one expiring former all-star to another -- and the team gave up an assortment of assets to seal the deal.

But when you dig deeper and look at what those picks actually are -- a protected 2014 first-round draft pick from the Sacramento Kings, 2015 and 2016 second round draft picks from the surging Portland Trail Blazers and the added top-15 protection on the pick Chicago can swap for in 2015, the cost was relatively low. They turned a player they were going to waive into an all-star at their weakest position.

The duo of Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee aren't producing for Mike Brown and Deng gives them an immediate upgrade at the worst position on their roster. Fear The Sword's Sam Vecenie concludes that the trade provides a "tremendous" upgrade for the team in every aspect:

How does Deng fit on the Cavaliers? Mainly, the upgrade that he represents on the wing both offensively and defensively is tremendous. The small forward position has been the bane of the Cavaliers' existence since LeBron James left. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are combining to average 9.6 points on 38% with 5.8 rebounds and 1 assist per game in 36.6 minutes this season. I'd probably argue that no team was getting worse production out of that position in the entire NBA.

Deng is averaging 19.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists on 45% shooting in 37.4 minutes per game this season. Even going by simple counting stats, the advantages of having Deng in the lineup as opposed to this season's small forward dumpster fire are apparent.

Nevertheless, there are questions.

Current impact

As mentioned above, Deng is going to be a huge lift at small forward for the Cavaliers. This move shows a clear motive by their front office: Win now. Cleveland went into the season with high expectations after adding another first-overall draft pick to their roster, but Anthony Bennett's disappointing rookie year could be a perfect analogy for how their 11-23 season has gone up till this point.

More on the Deng trade

The Eastern Conference is filled with middling teams trapped between the playoffs, rebuilding and possibly tanking, and the Cavaliers were beginning to fade into obscurity again. Cleveland is three games out from the No. 8 seed Detroit Pistons and should be back on track to challenge for that, and possibly more. The bottom four seeds in the East are clumped up, all within 1.5 games of one another.

For a team that wants in the playoffs now this was a perfect trade. Only time will tell if making the playoffs was the right play for the Cavaliers this season.

Cap space

But this trade becomes complicated is when looking at the Cavaliers' long-term prospects. Deng is currently making $14 million, set to expire as an unrestricted free agent this summer. He turns 29 in April and is slowly moving away from the prime of his career.

Partner his age with the incredible mileage he put on under Tom Thibodeau, and signing him to a large multi-year contract becomes a dangerous proposition. It's unclear what salary range he'll be looking for, but he turned down a three-year, $30 million extension from Chicago prior to the trade, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

Whether it was the money, the years or the franchise situation is unclear, but Cleveland will almost definitely have to combat other suitors who will be willing to sign Deng for $10 million per year.

The Cavaliers have roughly $50 million in salary on the books for the 2014-2015 season. The second year of Earl Clark's salary, worth $4.2 million, is fully non-guaranteed according to ShamSports. Alonzo Gee also has a fully non-guaranteed contract next season that can be waived to save $3 million. Rookies Henry Sims and Matthew Delledova are also non-guranteed next season, and only $4 million of Anderson Varejao's $9 million salary is guaranteed.

In total, the Cavaliers can save $14.7 million by waiving non-guaranteed contracts for next season. They'll have space to re-sign Deng, but there's no guarantee he sticks around in Cleveland.

If the team does bring back Deng, it's becomes incredibly difficult for them to sign LeBron James if he opts out of his contract with the Miami Heat this summer. This puts the front office in a tight position as it's unlikely they'd pass on a chance at bringing LeBron back. They would have to wait on re-signing Deng until they knew what LeBron's plans were, and that's a bad message to send to an unrestricted free agent who should have plenty of options.

Future Assets

The Cavaliers didn't give up any franchise-changing assets when they acquired Deng, which makes this trade a perfect one-year band aid if the team is set on seeing the postseason. Cleveland has all of their own future draft picks and still have two additional second round picks (2014 Memphis Grizzlies, 2014 Orlando Magic) and two protected first round picks (the Heat and Grizzlies' 2015 selections).

Miami's first-round pick is top-10 protected in 2015 and 2016 but unprotected in 2017. The Grizzlies' pick is a bit more complicated, providing protection on selections 1-5 and 15-30 in 2015 and 2016, and top-five protection in 2017 and 2018. Memphis' pick becomes unprotected in 2019.

Cleveland gave up low-tier draft picks from Portland and a Sacramento first-round pick that isn't leaving California because of the protection the Kings have on it. Sacramento's pick is top-12 protected in 2014 and top-10 protected from 2015-2017. If Sacramento has not given up a pick by 2017 the first round pick becomes a second round pick, 55-60 protected. If the second round pick is still protected, the deal is terminated and Sacramento does not lose a draft pick.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of filler picks over the next two drafts and didn't need the overflow of future picks they had in their back pocket. What they did need was serious help at small forward, and they did it without giving up any of their young prospects.

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