Reaction: Luol Deng Traded to Cavs

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Whether a result of the increased introspection that comes with age, or a reading list heavy in guys like Friedrich Hayek and Don Boudreaux, I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: I don’t really know much about anything.

I can read all the whitepapers, books, and blog posts that I want. I can subscribe to ESPN Insider and follow analytics masterminds like numberFire on Twitter. It doesn’t matter. The more I read, the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know.

This has been especially true in sports. Occasionally over the past few years, many predictions I’ve made in politics and public policy have been correct. But sports? Aside from declaring the most obvious obviousity (made-up word) of all time –that Brandon Weeden would be a bust– I’ve been wrong on just about everything:

-I loved the Cavs’ draft picks of Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. Waiters has been a disappointment, and AB might go down as the worst first overall pick in league history.

-I hated the Browns’ trade of Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. Even if T-Rich has a bounce-back 2014 season, the Browns still pulled off a heist.

-I thought Colt McCoy would be a legitimate starting NFL quarterback. He’s struggling to hold onto the 49ers’ backup job and will likely be cut.

The list could go on ad infinitum. I’ll spare you. But I will treat you to my analysis of the Cavs’ most recent move, if only so that in six months you can ridicule my flawed assumptions, faulty logic, and horrendously-wrong conclusion.

Last night’s trade sent center Andrew Bynum, two second round draft picks (via Portland), and one first round pick (via Sacramento) to the Chicago Bulls. Chicago can also swap draft picks with Cleveland in 2015 if Cleveland’s pick is outside of the lottery. In return, the Cavs received small forward Luol Deng.

Because of how Bynum’s contract is structured, the Bulls will cut him today and save about $6 million. The second rounders they received from Portland come in 2015 and 2016; while it’s still early, Portland figures to be a contender, so those picks will probably be on the back-end of the second round. The first rounder they receive via Sacramento, meanwhile, is lottery protected until 2017, meaning they don’t see it unless the Kings make the playoffs. The Kings are a very bad team without much of a future, so Chicago probably netted two low second-rounders and a mid-first rounder in 2017. Outside of the money saved by Bynum (which the Cavs didn’t need), these are not particularly valuable assets.

Deng comes with some downside, of course. He’s 28 years old, has logged insane minutes when healthy, and hasn’t always been. He’s a poor shooter for a wing and joins a team without many floor-spacing options. His contract expires at the end of the season; it’s no guarantee he’ll re-sign with Cleveland, and if he does, it will be for a lot of money. The Cavs will have to devote a lot ($12 million+ annually) of cap space to a somewhat risky asset.

And yet, this trade is a coup for Cleveland, mostly because of the “Jeremy Lin Effect”.

Lin’s rise to stardom wasn’t a result of his own superior play. Statistically, he was about a league-average player in New York. But the Knicks’ other point guards were historically bad, so Lin was a godsend. Lin didn’t carry the team, he simply stopped dragging the team down as other lead guards had. This made his teammates better and helped the Knicks make an improbable deep playoff run.

Since the departure of LeBron James in 2010, the Cavs have had the following starters at small forward: Anonymous Flotsam, Bile (it’s pronounced “bee-LAY”), Garbage Stack, and Alonzo Gee. I think the numbers gurus are underestimating Deng’s impact, because they understate just how cripplingly awful the team’s prior wings have been. The team would kill for league-average play at the “3”.

And by all accounts, Deng should be better than league average, at least for the next two years. He’s an elite defender and athletic finisher. He’ll be a huge asset in transition, where the team’s only options are Kyrie Irving highlight-reel plays and Anthony Bennett missed layups.

Anyone who has watched the 2013 Cavs know that there’s something missing mentally. There’s a lack of hustle and focus; Deng is a character guy who should help this.

Finally, this move prevents the team from having to tank, which is not a sound strategy. Cleveland has a bright young core in Irving, Tristian Thompson, and Dion Waiters. Another season of inevitable losing would hamper their development. The Deng trade will get the team playing meaningful games, it will season the youngsters, and it will make Irving more likely to stay with the team long-term.

I think the Cavs make the playoffs as a 7-seed as a result of this trade. They might get crushed in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s fine. Teams  don’t go from the lottery to the conference finals. Progress in the NBA is made incrementally. This is a crucial step in the right direction of a rebuild.

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