INDEPENDENCE — There will be no tanking for a high draft pick this season. The Cavaliers are intent on trying to make the playoffs.
General manager Chris Grant traded embattled center Andrew Bynum and three future draft picks to the Chicago Bulls early Tuesday morning for two-time All-Star small forward Luol Deng.
“Your team gets better when you add good players,” Grant said at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Today we got better.”
The Cavs, 11-23 prior to a game against Philadelphia on Tuesday, began the night three games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but only 4½ games out of the No. 5 position.
“Being in the East, you never feel like you’re out of it,” coach Mike Brown said.
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Deng, 28, is averaging a career-high 19.0 points on .452 shooting, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He is earning $14.3 million in the final year of his contract, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and has missed nine games due to injury.
The Cavs can sign Deng to a three-year extension prior to July 1, but it’s likely the small forward will want to wait until the free agent period begins. On July 1, Cleveland can give him a five-year contract.
“We’re bringing in a player who is an All-Star in his prime, who is in line with all the things we’re trying to build in the franchise with these young players,” Grant said. “He has a winning background, leadership and obviously he comes from a strong defensive system.
“We’d like to keep him for the long term,” he added. “He’s 28 years old.”
Cleveland gave up its rights to the first-round pick it got from Sacramento in the J.J. Hickson-Omri Casspi deal in 2011, but there’s a chance that selection may never be in the first round. It is top-12 protected for the Kings in 2014 and top-10 protected in 2015 and ’16. If it hasn’t gone to the Bulls by then, it becomes a second-round choice in 2017.
Sacramento was 10-22 prior to Tuesday, the fourth-worst record in the league.
The Bulls, who waived Bynum on Tuesday to avoid paying him the final $6 million he is owed this season and stay out of the luxury tax, are going into rebuild mode with point guard Derrick Rose out for the season with a knee injury. They began the season hoping to make a run at an NBA title, but were 14-18 prior to Tuesday.
“To have him traded is tough on us,” Bulls forward Carlos Boozer told reporters in Chicago. “Luol is like a brother to us.”
“It’s tough,” added Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, who was not thrilled with the move. “Luol did an unbelievable job for us.”
Chicago will have the option of exchanging first-round picks with the Cavs in 2015, but only if Cleveland’s pick is between Nos. 15 and 30.
The Bulls also got second-round picks in 2015 and ’16 that the Cavs acquired from Portland in a 2013 draft night trade.
When asked what went wrong with the Bynum experiment, Grant praised the 26-year-old for dropping his weight from 308 to 282 pounds and making it back in time to play in the season opener.
“I don’t necessarily think anything went wrong,” he said when asked about the center, who was suspended for a Dec. 28 game in Boston and was being withheld from all activities due to conduct detrimental to the team. “We were able to turn his contract into Luol Deng.
“I’d say it worked out well,” the GM added. “I wish nothing but the best for Andrew.”
Deng, who will fill a monstrous need for the Cavs at small forward, has been an All-Star the last two seasons and was a second-team All-Defensive pick in 2012. The 10th-year pro also received the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 2007.
“They’re hard to find — guys who can score at one end and defend at the other,” Grant said. “He’s definitely a two-way player.”
While it’s clear the acquisition of Deng makes the Cavs a better team this season, it will be impossible to evaluate the deal until down the road.
One, the Cavs might have to overpay to keep a guy who has already played a ton of minutes over his career.
Two, Deng, who is represented by Herb Rudoy, the straight-shooting agent who also had former Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as a client, might walk regardless of what Cleveland offers.
Three, with Deng, the Cavs might indeed make the playoffs but lose early, which would leave them picking in the 15-17 range in a loaded 2014 NBA Draft.
Cleveland entered Tuesday with the fifth-worst record in the league, meaning it would have been in the lottery and possibly in position to make a run at someone like Duke’s Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas, Kentucky’s Julius Randle or
Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” power forward Tristan Thompson said. “(Deng) wants the same thing. It’s exciting.”
Deng, who has scored at least 20 points 10 times this season, was originally drafted by Phoenix with the seventh pick in 2004. He had spent his entire career with the Bulls and owns career averages of 16.1 points on .460 shooting, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Deng has appeared in 48 playoff games (42 starts) with averages of 16.7 points on .452 shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
“The professionalism he brings to the table, that’s one of the first things you hear about when you talk about Luol Deng,” Brown said. “It’s second to none.”
Age: 28 (turns 29 on April 16)
All-Star Games: 2