Whenever anyone has asked Keith Langlois of Pistons.com about how the team might use its approximately $25 million in cap space this summer, he has consistently said we are just as likely to use that money to facilitate a trade. His premise is that there are teams without cap space that, because they are threatened by the luxury tax, might be willing to part with a valuable player to save money.
Last week there was this exchange in the Pistons.com Mailbox:
Darren (Warwick, Australia): With the Bulls figuring to pay the luxury tax again next season, combined with the emergence of Jimmy Butler, is there any chance the Pistons could land Luol Deng? I’m not an NBA general manager, but I think he’d be good in a Pistons jersey.
Langlois: Deng would be good in any jersey, Darren. I think you’re barking up the right tree, but maybe at the wrong branch. This is precisely the type of deal the Pistons will be looking to make – looking at franchises that are facing a cap crunch and gauging which players might be made available. You’d have to believe the Bulls are intrigued by the cost-saving possibilities of sliding Butler into Deng’s small forward spot, not just to save tax dollars but to allocate money to other needs. No, Butler isn’t Deng, but can he be close enough in another year that the Bulls would be better off spending some of the savings on another player or two? The hurdle in completing the deal would be twofold, as I see it from a thousand-yard perspective: (1) Would the Bulls want to risk alienating Derrick Rose by trading away one of his two most reliable teammates (Joakim Noah the other) perhaps a year too soon; and (2) would they be willing to deal Deng to a division rival, especially one with the antagonistic history the Pistons share with them?
In order to consider the possibility of Deng coming to Detroit, we need to answer three questions:
1. Would Chicago be willing to trade Deng?
2. Would Chicago be interested in the Pistons as a trade partner?
3. Would Deng make the Pistons a better team?
Let’s try to answer each of these questions in turn:
Would Chicago be willing to trade Deng? Deng has been Chicago’s starter at SF since his rookie year in 2004-05. Over 9 years he’s averaged 16 points on 46% shooting, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He’s also averaged almost 36 minutes per game for his career. This year he played 38.7 minutes a game; the previous 2 years he averaged over 39 minutes. He’s made the All-Star team once – in 2011-12. In 2008 he signed a 6 year/$71 million contract extension with the Bulls. Next season will be the final year of that deal, which will pay him $14.2 million.
Chicago has salary commitments next year of $77 million to 9 players. Richard Hamilton’s $5 million is unguaranteed, but even without him they will be up against the luxury tax threshold with only 8 players under contract. That’s a tight spot to be in when you still need to fill out your bench. Of course, it’s possible that the Bulls won’t worry about the tax bill when it comes due – at least they’re not saddled with the even higher payrolls of the Lakers, Nets or Heat!
But what the Bulls also must consider is whether they want to sign Deng to a new contract in 2014. He just turned 28 in April, so in all likelihood he’ll be looking for another lucrative deal. Keeping him beyond next season would probably make Chicago a repeat offender under the 2011 CBA, which means they’d soon have to pay even more in luxury taxes. Trading Deng could offer them the chance to save themselves money now and in the future, as well as deriving a return that they would otherwise lose when he becomes a free agent.
Chicago also has a player in Jimmy Butler who has performed very capably and is still on his rookie deal (he’ll make $1.1 million next season). His WS/48 this year was .158; Deng’s was .105. While Butler may be a less prolific scorer than Deng, having Derrick Rose back in the line-up next fall (is that assuming too much?) should easily make up the difference. Jettisoning Deng’s salary would also make it easier for the Bulls to fill the remaining spots on their roster with some adequate reserves.
Trading Deng is not Chicago’s only option for unloading salary. They could also use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, who is due to make $15.3 million next season and $16.8 million in 2014-15. But then they’d lose his 16 points and 10 boards a game, and deplete their already thin frontline. While Taj Gibson could become their starting PF, their bench support would be very inadequate. Right now the only other bigs on their team are Joachim Noah and Nazr Mohammed. They’d have to amnesty Boozer, then hope they could sign some capable reserves.
Therefore, I think Chicago has some very good reasons to consider shopping Deng.
Would Chicago be interested in the Pistons as a trade partner? While I can see how intradivison and historic rivalry might give them pause, I doubt that this would be the deciding factor. The real question would be whether the Pistons could offer the Bulls a combination of value and cost savings that interests them. So what do we have to offer them?
Looking at our roster, I see 2 players who might interest Chicago: Rodney Stuckey and Kyle Singler. Stuckey would offer the Bulls a combo guard with an expiring deal ($8.5 million next season), who could either start at SG or serve as a backup PG to Rose. Singler is cheap ($1 million) and would provide them with a SF backup for Butler. This deal would save the Bulls $4.7 million next season. Assuming they drop Hamilton, Chicago’s salary commitments would be $67.2 million for 9 players. This would make it easier for them to sign a few more players and, if the luxury tax threshold rises above $70.3 million, they might even avoid paying taxes.
While there may be other teams who could use Deng and could present them with a better offer (Sacramento, for example, might offer them Marcus Thornton), I see the Pistons as an attractive trade partner for Chicago.
Therefore, I think Chicago would be interested in trading Deng to Detroit.
Would Deng make the Pistons a better team? Clearly SF was a weak spot for last year’s team – especially after we traded Tayshaun Prince. While there were excellent reasons to trade him and Austin Daye in return for Jose Calderon, I don’t think anyone believes Singler was a more capable starter in Prince’s place. While Kris Middleton showed some promise late in the season, it would take major improvements from him and Singler to keep SF from being a glaring Pistons weakness in 2013-14. Deng would provide us with an immediate upgrade – a solid veteran with playoff experience.
If we made this trade, our salary commitments would be slightly under $40 million for 9 players. That would give us sufficient money to sign Calderon, our draft picks, and 1 or 2 other free agents to complete our roster.
If our goal is to be in the playoffs next spring, then a starting line-up of Calderon, Deng, Drummond, Knight and Monroe should be capable of achieving that goal. Unless he improves significantly, Knight would certainly be the weak link. But assuming we can bolster our bench through the draft and some other free agent signings, I think 40+ wins would be very possible.
Of course, in 2014 Deng’s contract would expire – as would Charlie Villanueva’s, giving us nearly $23 million to spend. I assume a major chunk of this savings would go to extend Greg Monroe’s deal. Whether we tried to keep Deng would probably depend on how much he could command on the market. But even if we let him walk, we’d still have money to spend on another free agent. Most importantly, our young team would have experienced its first taste of playoff basketball.
Therefore, I think adding Luol Deng would definitely make the Pistons a better team.
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