It’s an indisputable fact the Cavaliers will be a better team with two-time All-Star Luol Deng starting at small forward.
That said, the trade general manager Chris Grant pulled off early Tuesday morning is not the slam dunk, no-brainer some fans and radio talk show types think it is.
Sure, the Cavs gave up only embattled center Andrew Bynum, three future draft picks that will likely all be in the second round and a possible swap of first-round choices in 2015 — only if Cleveland’s pick falls between Nos. 15 and 30, to boot — for a talented 28-year-old who will undeniably be the team’s best small forward since You Know Who left town in 2010.
Sure, Deng is a 19-point scorer, outstanding defensive player and consummate professional.
Those are just a few of the positives from a Cleveland perspective and we’ll go into them in more depth in a minute, but despite what you may hear or read elsewhere, there is still a chance this deal could backfire.
It’s not an overwhelmingly great chance and there’s no guarantee the alternative — writing off yet another season and getting another high pick in a 2014 NBA Draft that is expected to be loaded — would have turned out any better, but there’s a chance nonetheless.
At 11-23 prior to Tuesday, the Cavs had the fifth-worst record in the NBA and were only 3½ games back of tying for the worst.
Having lost 10 of their last 12 games — the wins came in overtime against Milwaukee, which has the worst record in the league, and Orlando, which blew a seven-point lead in the last 15 seconds of regulation — it wouldn’t have been hard to envision the Cavs falling lower in the standings.
While not a big fan of “tanking” and fully aware of Grant’s less-than-stellar performance in the draft, that would have put Cleveland in position to get someone like Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky’s Julius Randle or Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
In the sad-sack Eastern Conference, that’s not going to happen now unless the Cavs suffer even more serious injuries than normal — and it might not happen even under those circumstances.
As bad as Cleveland played through the first 34 games of the season, it entered Tuesday just three games out of the eighth seed in the East and only 4½ out of the fifth.
But if the Cavs finish seventh or eighth in the East, get quickly eliminated from the playoffs by Indiana or Miami and Deng walks as an unrestricted free agent, they will end up with a first-round pick in the 15-17 range and have nothing to show from this trade, other than getting a small taste of the
That’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s one that can’t be ignored, just as it must also be pointed out that there is a lot to like about this deal.
While not a superstar, Deng is a top-tier small forward, which was far and away the weakest position on Cleveland’s roster.
Not only that, he plays as hard at the defensive end as he does on offense, which might help coach Mike Brown finally get his defense-first message across to all his players.
As an added bonus, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Deng, who turns 29 in April and is in the prime of his career, is the consummate professional and a complete team player.
The Cavs can offer the South Sudan native a three-year extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but Deng, who is making $14.3 million this season, reportedly turned down a three-year, $30 million extension from the Bulls.
That means he’ll likely test free agency, where the Cavs can give him a five-year deal for more money than any other team can offer.
Deng isn’t a max-contract player, however, so look for Grant, who quickly stated his desire to keep the small forward long term, to offer something along the lines of four years, $54 million, which is what Josh Smith, who is not as good a player, just got from Detroit.
While keeping Deng will ultimately determine the success of Grant’s latest deal, there’s already one overwhelming positive to the move: It will make the Cavs worth watching for the rest of this season.
Kyrie Irving, C.J. Miles, Deng, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao will represent a pretty decent starting lineup, especially in the East.
Toss in Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack, mix in a little tough-as-nails Matthew Dellavedova, hope you get something from guys like Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett and Earl Clark and who knows?
In a best-case scenario, the Cavs climb to sixth or better in the East and avoid Indiana or Miami in the first round. Hard as it is to believe, that means Cleveland would have at least a puncher’s chance of winning a series.
Do anything close to that, re-sign Deng while also adding another quality free agent in the offseason and that’s when this trade will officially become a total no-brainer.