The Chicago Bulls made out like bandits during the trade deadline. Like I do with most of my blogs, I’ll try to explain from a management/CBA perspective of what the Bulls are up to. I’ll primarily discuss the Nikola Mirotic trade, and focus on the trade exception that was created (if you want to know how trade exceptions work, I touched on them, here). Before I go into the mechanics of the Mirotic trade, I think it’d be beneficial to highlight the Bulls financial approach over the last few years.
- The Economy of the NBA Over the Past Few Years
It’s important to discuss the state of the NBA economy to understand the different positions teams hold during trades. First, teams can spend what the salary cap amount allows them. A few years back, the salary cap went up a LOT from the new TV deal the NBA signed, and many teams with this increase in money decided to spend. The infamous Timofey Mozgov deal comes to mind, where the Lakers signed him to a 4 yr./$64,000,000 deal during the first minute of free agency. But some teams like the Bulls didn’t spend, and have waited for the market to balance out. Now, because of that patience, the Bulls are “buyers” during trades from “sellers” who are trying to offload bloated contracts, like Mr. Mozgov’s.
Since the Bulls have been calculated in their spending (they’re not perfect, see: Wade and Rondo signings), they now have the cap space to take advantage of the sins of other teams. By the way, this isn’t something new the Bulls came up with. The Lakers new front office regime wanted to get rid of Mozgov, and the Nets were willing to take on his contract for the price of one D’Angelo Russell. As they say, it’s a copycat league. The Pelicans had to “sell” off Asik’s large contract to reduce their payroll, and the Bulls were willing to “buy”. Sure that included Mirotic in the deal, but if Mirotic was hellbent on leaving after his altercation with Portis (who can blame him), the salaries of Asik and Mirotic match up and the Bulls were able to get a first-rounder for their trouble.
Naturally, the question becomes if that first-round pick was an adequate asset in return to take on Asik’s contract, and the answer is a resounding yes. I’ve stated in previous blogs how deep this draft class is, so I won’t go into that here. But the Bulls have a lot of needs. Robin Lopez is going to only be a Bull for next season (if he’s not traded beforehand), same goes for Holiday, the Bulls are hoping Felicio becomes the backup center they paid him to be, and are in dire need of another playmaker that isn’t named Jerian Grant. After the Mirotic trade, the Bulls will likely get a top-20 pick in the draft from the Pelicans plus they have their own pick, which is trying to tank it’s way into the top-five. The Bulls have the option to use both of these picks and trade up in the draft to get a player they really want, or just draft two of many positions they need to fill (I know again, they did this before with the McDermott trade. I selectively block that trade out because of how good Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic have become..). Getting a first-rounder in this NBA economy is further evidenced by how tightly other teams have held onto their picks. The only other team that traded their first-round pick was Cleveland. Cleveland was just going nuts during this trade deadline so they’re the exception to the hold-on-to-your-first-rounder-like-a-teddy-bear rule all other teams followed.
- “On-the-Margin” Trades
The Bulls also got slammed for trading their second-round pick, and that’s fair. The Bulls trade second-rounders like hot cakes, and the whole Jordan Bell situation last year. But still, it’s the 47th pick. It would be one thing if it was another top 10 pick in the second round, but this pick is negligible. If you’re still triggered, the Bulls have swap rights in 2021 and 2022 over the Pelicans and the Pistons respective second-round picks. This could come in handy as both franchises have injury-prone superstars. The Bulls also were also able to negotiate on the margins by acquiring Noah Vonleh from the Blazers for peanuts. He hasn’t done much in the league, but he’s only 22 and the Bulls can see if he’s rotation worthy. Sure, the Bulls take on his salary this year, but they have the space (and are still under the cap floor even with this move, I’m guessing the Bulls test the buyout market first or sign Blakeney to a big-league deal), and Vonleh’s a restricted free agent next year. They can bring him back next year for cheap if teams don’t offer him anything, or they can just cut bait. And if you’re STILL triggered, the Bulls got something way more valuable than the 47th pick — another trade exception.
Trades are very tricky to structure in the NBA, so it’s easy to miss something that’s not sexy like a trade exception that was created out of a trade. K.C. Johnson, Albert Nahmad, and Cole Zwicker all have reported/laid out how the Bulls used their old trade exception from the Jimmy Butler trade to absorb Omer Asik’s salary, and created a new trade exception of $12,500,000 that expires next year. What this means in English is that the Bulls will add more to the return they received from the Jimmy Butler trade. It’s no longer just Butler for Dunn, LaVine, and Markkanen – you now have to add whatever first-rounder the Bulls select with the Pelicans pick in the draft. This string of “Jimmy Butler Trade Benefits” may go on even further if the Bulls use their NEW trade exception in another Asik-like trade next year. Main point is this, the Bulls are setting themselves to get the most out of their trades, and are using their position as “buyers” in this NBA economy very well.
To conclude, I think the Bulls got tremendous value out of the Mirotic trade. A lot of these moves are based on flexibility for the future, and many fans roll their eyes when they hear GarPax say as much. But the fact of the matter is… it’s true. Rebuilding doesn’t happen overnight, and the Bulls are doing what they should be doing in the trade market. Take on a bad contract for a draft pick. The Bulls were able to do just that this year, and have set themselves up to do it all over again next year.