Pelicans get:?Forward Nikola Mirotic, 2018 second-round pick
Bulls get:?Center Omer Asik, guard Tony Allen, guard Jameer Nelson, protected 2018 first-round pick and the rights to exchange second-round picks in 2021
DeMarcus Cousins' untimely injury ramped up the urgency for the Pelicans to make a move to stay competitive for a playoff spot. Though the LA Clippers trading Blake Griffin and other veterans could make New Orleans' path to the postseason easier, the early results without Cousins have been ugly: home losses to the Clippers and, on Tuesday night, the Sacramento Kings. At that rate, the team might not have been able to hold off the Utah Jazz, five games back in 10th place.
Clearly, the Pelicans needed to upgrade their frontcourt talent. Mirotic qualifies, and he could be joined by Greg Monroe after the New Orleans native agreed to a buyout with the Phoenix Suns?on Wednesday,? according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
As effective as Monroe is, I'm more excited about once again getting a chance to see Anthony Davis at center surrounded by shooters in a lineup that should maximize his offensive capabilities. Since Cousins' injury, Alvin Gentry has started Davis at center, with Dante Cunningham taking Cousins' place in the starting lineup. Cunningham is a career 32.4 percent 3-point shooter, though he did make 39.2 percent last season. He's OK at spacing the floor as a power forward. Mirotic is elite.
No, Mirotic is not likely to continue shooting as well as he has this season — 42.9 percent from 3-point range, 52.5 percent on 2s, for a career-high .624 true shooting percentage. Already, Mirotic has shot just 36.7 percent on 3s since I wrote earlier this month that his start was fluky. (By increasing the volume of his shots that are 3s, Mirotic has managed to remain just as efficient since then.)
Nonetheless, even when shooting a below-average 34.2 percent on 3s last season, Mirotic had strong gravity because of his reputation as a shooter and willingness to pull the trigger (he attempted 8.1 3-pointers per 36 minutes in 2016-17 and is up to 9.3 so far this year). Mirotic's Cleaning the Glass stats page shows the Chicago offense has consistently been more efficient and often much more efficient with Mirotic on the court. As a result, ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) rates him a top-40 offensive player in the NBA, both in the single-season version on the website and the multiyear version that is more predictive of future performance.
Between Mirotic, Jrue Holiday (32.8 percent from 3-point range this season but 36.0 percent for his career) and E'Twaun Moore (42.6 percent this season, 38.1 percent career), New Orleans can now put three shooters around Rajon Rondo and Davis in the kind of spread pick-and-roll Gentry ran with the Suns and presumably has always hoped to establish with the Pelicans. And when Darius Miller (42.1 percent this season, 39.4 percent) swaps in for Rondo and moves Holiday to the point, New Orleans will have one of the league's better shooting fivesomes.
As part of a three-man frontcourt rotation, Monroe would help, too. Though this deal doesn't guarantee he'll sign up, it gives the Pelicans the necessary breathing room to sign him because they included both Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson in the trade. That means New Orleans can afford to sign Monroe for the remainder of the season and stay under the luxury tax.
Looking forward, the need to pick up Mirotic's $12.5 million team option was a hang-up with the trade,? according to Wojnarowski's reporting. If Cousins leaves as an unrestricted free agent, the Pelicans would surely be thrilled to have Mirotic at that price. Assuming Cousins re-signs for his maximum salary or close to it, however, they will probably find themselves over the luxury-tax line. That means Mirotic would likely be on the move again.
While Mirotic will make only slightly more than Asik in 2018-19, odds were that New Orleans would either have traded Asik in a deal for expiring contracts or waived him and stretched the $14.3 million remaining on his contract over the next five years to create more wiggle room. It would be difficult for the Pelicans to find a way to keep both Cousins at max and Mirotic. Fortunately, moving him to a team with cap space shouldn't be terribly difficult for New Orleans if necessary.
Getting Mirotic for the remainder of this season and getting off Asik's salary did come at a price. Since drafting Davis, the Pelicans have continually used draft picks as trade assets. The only first-round pick they've kept in that span ( Buddy Hield) was used to get Cousins, meaning barring another move New Orleans will now be looking at a six-year stretch without adding a first-rounder on a rookie contract.
Such cost-controlled rookie contracts are invaluable to an organization with limited flexibility, and at some point the Pelicans are going to need to add young talent to the roster. That said, if New Orleans was going to trade a first-round pick, this was a reasonable use of it — certainly compared to trading a first-round pick to get Asik in the first place.
My immediate reaction to this trade from the Bulls' standpoint was negative. Not only are they giving up a valuable player in Mirotic, they're also taking back a bad contract with Asik. Is all that worth a pick in the middle of the first round?
Well, maybe. Let's split this into two separate deals, imagining that Chicago had separately traded Mirotic for an expiring contract and then swapped that expiring contract to New Orleans for the remainder of Asik's deal.
It's easier to establish the price of the Asik salary dump. As Danny Leroux of The Athletic noted on Twitter, last summer the Atlanta Hawks took on the final two years of Jamal Crawford's contract as part of a three-team deal with the Clippers that also landed Danilo Gallinari in Los Angeles via sign-and-trade. After a buyout, the Hawks ended up owing Crawford $13.3 million — nearly the same as the $14.3 million left on Asik's contract.
In return, the Hawks got the Houston Rockets' first-round pick, one that's probably going to end up either 28th or 29th. The Bulls are likely getting a much better pick. Though it's a little tough to tell exactly where the Pelicans will finish with Mirotic but without Cousins, let's say for the sake of argument we expect them to finish with the 18th pick.
Looking at the trade value chart I put together last year, the difference between the 18th pick and the 28th pick is valued somewhere between the 29th and 30th pick. And that's in terms of how I would value the picks; in practice, it's generally more expensive to trade up, so from the league's perspective Chicago probably got the equivalent of something like the 25th pick for Mirotic. Were they going to do better than that? I'd say probably not.
There's a little more to the equation on both sides. Cap space will almost certainly be more valuable in the summer of 2018 than it was last offseason because fewer teams have it, and more teams will be in the same position as New Orleans — needing to shed money to avoid the tax. (Fortunately for the Bulls, they'll still have plenty of it, more than $20 million in the most likely scenario.) And giving the Pelicans back the second-round pick acquired in last summer's Quincy Pondexter trade mitigates some of the value. On the plus side, Chicago gets some upside with the possibility that the Pelicans miss the playoffs and the pick ends up even better than where I've projected it.
Ultimately, I think this is a better deal for the Bulls than it looks at first glance, if not necessarily a good one.