By Cody Westerlund–
(670 The Score) The Bulls have netted the first-round pick they so desired in a Nikola Mirotic trade.
After their negotiations hit a snag two days ago, Chicago traded Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday afternoon, the team confirmed. The Bulls received a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick, center Omer Asik, guard Tony Allen and guard Jameer Nelson. Additionally, Chicago dealt what was originally New Orleans’ 2018 second-round pick back to the Pelicans. The Bulls also hold the right to swap their own 2021 second-round pick with the Pelicans’ second-round pick that year.
The Bulls will keep Asik and Nelson. Allen’s status remains undetermined, though it’s expected that he’ll be waived.
The first-round pick the Bulls are receiving is protected 1-5 in 2018, TNT’s David Aldridge reported, making it highly likely that it conveys to Chicago this summer. The Pelicans were seventh in the West entering play Thursday and were in line for the No. 17 pick.
Asik, 31, is a salary dump onto the Bulls’ lap. He’s averaging 1.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 14 games this season. He’s owed $10.6 million this season, $11.3 million in 2018-’19 and then has a $3 million guarantee for 2019-’20. Residing below the salary floor now and with designs of being in the lottery again in 2018-’19, the Bulls were willing to take on Asik’s bad money. Allen and Nelson are working on small expiring contracts.
“I will tell you that the draft asset that we acquired in this deal was far and away the best thing that we had got,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said on a conference call. “It’s just consistent with the direction and plan that we had talked about this summer on draft when we made the (Jimmy Butler) trade. Acquiring a draft asset, having salary control over a young player in the position we’re in is important and valuable to us.”
The Bulls also own a $12.5-million trade exception now, Paxson said.
The Pelicans will pick up Mirotic’s $12.5-million team option for 2018-’19, per reports. That had been the sticking point Tuesday, as Mirotic — who held a no-trade clause when his option wasn’t picked up — wanted that money guaranteed with salary cap space at a premium for teams on the open market this summer. With luxury tax concerns, the Pelicans had initially been reluctant to pick up the option.
An array of factors led to Mirotic’s eventual exit.
As the Bulls embarked on a new direction in June with the trade of Jimmy Butler, they knew it was bad business to let Mirotic, 26, walk for nothing in restricted free agency but also understood he didn’t quite fit the rebuilding timeline. Mirotic’s free agency was drawn out, as outside suitors showed little interest after his inconsistencies and the Bulls retained him on a two-year deal with a $12.5-million team option on the second season just before the start of training camp in late September. From the start of free agency, even before bringing him back, the Bulls had privately discussed a trade possibility.
The tenor of the entire season then changed for Mirotic and the Bulls on Oct. 17, when an enraged Bobby Portis knocked Mirotic out with a punch in a practice two days before the regular-season opener. The concussion and two facial fractures that Mirotic suffered caused him to miss the first 23 games of the season, over which the Bulls started an NBA-worst 3-20.
It also caused Mirotic’s representation to inform the Bulls that he wanted a separation from Portis. While Mirotic had long spoken of his love for playing in Chicago, his camp made it known he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to leave if the Bulls didn’t deal Portis instead.
All along, the Bulls maintained they wouldn’t be held hostage by any demand of Mirotic, no matter how ugly or the cause of his predicament.
Before Mirotic returned to the floor on Dec. 8, his trade value was minimal and the Bulls’ hope of flipping him for anything of significance appeared far fetched.
No one expected what came next, other than possibly Mirotic himself. After bulking up in the offseason and putting weight back on after a tough recovery, Mirotic responded with the best basketball of his career. He has career-best marks of 16.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 42.9 percent 3-point shooting. His return to the floor coincided with the Bulls, then a laughingstock, ripping off a seven-game winning streak. Much of their success was sparked by Mirotic and Portis meshing well on the second unit even as they refused to speak off the court.
At ease amid a crazy situation, the self-assured Mirotic took glee in pointing out that it wasn’t a coincidence that the Bulls finally found success with him back.
“I’m back,” he said on several occasions in explaining the team’s surge.
Now, he’s gone.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.