- The Pelicans have begun retooling after DeMarcus Cousins's season-ending injury. First up, New Orleans adequately filled a shooting void by grabbing Nikola Mirotic from the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.
Another trade deadline domino fell on Thursday as the Bulls and Pelicans finally completed a trade sending sharpshooting forward Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported. According to reports, the Bulls will receive a 2018 first-round pick with light protections and center Omer Asik, while sending a second-round pick they acquired from the Pelicans in a previous trade back to New Orleans. The Bulls will also reportedly acquire veteran guards Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson from the Pelicans. Allen will be waived immediately, although Nelson will remain in Chicago for now.
Talks between the two sides publicly fell through on Tuesday. After reports came out surrounding the structure of the trade, it became clear that the two sides had not yet reached an agreement. This was Mirotic’s final pump-fake as a member of the Bulls. Per league rules, he had temporary no-trade rights because the team had not yet picked up his $12.5 million option for next season. After the Pelicans agreed to guarantee the money for next season, the trade was completed Thursday. Let’s grade the deal.
In wake of DeMarcus Cousins’ brutal season-ending injury, New Orleans remained compelled to push toward the postseason. The Pelicans landed an experienced stretch forward to add frontcourt scoring in Boogie's stead. Mirotic had by and large played well for an uninspiring Bulls team, and provides immediate floor spacing in the frontcourt for Anthony Davis. It’s an immediate play to stay competitive and get Davis to the playoffs, and instantly strengthens their rotation. It doesn’t solve long-term financial issues that may come back to hinder the Pelicans over the next few years, but shedding Asik’s contract and getting something back of substance is an achievement on some level.
Mirotic, 26, is averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds this season while shooting 42.9% from three, and by and large had performed well for Chicago after missing the first chunk of the season with facial fractures from his fight with Bobby Portis. He fills some of the Cousins-sized hole up front, and adds another legitimate long-range threat to bolster the offense (the Pelicans’ top shooters have been E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller). Defensively he may create some matchup issues and isn’t a perfect fix, but staying aggressive makes some level of sense for the Pelicans philosophically as they aim to preserve position in the standings. The subtext to the trade is that it clears a roster spot for the potential signing of veteran center Greg Monroe, who will reportedly be bought out by Phoenix and is seriously considering New Orleans. Bringing in both Monroe and Mirotic is ostensibly an improvement for the short-term.
Getting out from under of Asik’s contract, which owes him about $22 million through 2020 (not including this season) is an additional coup for New Orleans.With Mirotic’s deal guaranteed for next season and the Pelicans still likely to offer DeMarcus Cousins a massive contract, New Orleans is staring at the luxury tax for the next several seasons, meaning limited flexibility that could hamstring efforts to build. Still, moving Asik’s dead-weight deal can still be regarded as a coup in itself, and surrendering a first to then let Mirotic walk would have made little sense. Although the Pelicans are parting with a first-round pick (which probably would have been the price to dump Asik anyway), at least they will do so with a tangible on-court return, particularly if Monroe comes in for the playoff push. The pick is reportedly top-five protected for the upcoming draft, meaning Chicago will likely have it right away. If it conveys, the Pelicans will have picked in the first round just twice since 2013.
This brings a rather awful Pelicans tenure to a close for Asik, who New Orleans acquired via three-way trade in the summer of 2014 that saw them surrender a first-rounder to the Rockets (which for what it’s worth, became Sam Dekker). Then, want for options in the middle with Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans all making eight figures (remember?), they signed him to a five-year, $60 million deal the following summer. Fast forward, and the Pelicans parted with another first to be rid of Asik, with two full seasons left on his contract and little impact left on the team. Sometimes, you can’t make these things up.
The elephant in the room is keeping Davis happy, and this move sends the right message. The Pelicans may have played themselves into a corner financially but at least they’re adding talent in the process, and Mirotic can help bridge the gap as Cousins works toward a return. Whether the Davis-Cousins-Jrue Holiday trio will be enough to elevate New Orleans to the West’s upper echelon in the next few years is still an unsolved question. This isn’t the deal that gets the Pelicans over the hump, but it should help for now.
Landing a first-round pick for Mirotic has to be considered a win as the Bulls continue to rebuild, and should take them further toward the bottom of the standings in a year where tanking is the sensible move. Chicago has to get worse before it can get better, and turning over added minutes to the fast-improving Lauri Markkaken (and to a lesser degree, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio) is the right decision. It was clear rather quickly after the Mirotic-Portis incident that the Bulls would be ushered toward dealing one of the two, and Mirotic would have been a decent bet to move at the deadline regardless.
Asik, who spent time with Chicago as a defensive enforcer during Derrick Rose’s prime years, has $11.2 and $11.9 million left on his albatross of a contract. The final season is an option he’ll surely exercise, but also includes just $3 million guaranteed. Beyond Zach LaVine being due for a new contract, this is not a team positioned to spend much long-term money at the moment, so the Bulls have to pay somebody. Eating bad contracts for picks is proper thinking given their position, and the return’s actual value will come down to drafting well.
There’s plenty of irony to be found in the Bulls’ recent pick-related history. It's not ideal that they had to give up a second-round pick to make this deal work (KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports it was required to make the Pelicans want to pick up Mirotic's option), and will have swap rights with New Orleans in 2021. This echoes their decision to give a first-rounder back to the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler trade. The internet will never forgive them for straight-up selling the second-rounder that became Jordan Bell, and now the team seems willing to take on money for draft picks. Chicago deserves credit for creating a first-round return on Mirotic, who had little place in their plans, but a little rhyme and reason to their decision-making wouldn’t hurt, either.