By Cody Westerlund–
(670 The Score) From the time that Bobby Portis punched Niko Mirotic in an Oct. 17 practice and changed the dynamic of the team’s season, the Bulls were in a difficult position.
Shortly after, Mirotic’s representation made it known that he wanted out of Chicago, even though he wouldn’t be eligible to be traded until Jan. 15. On Thursday, the Bulls came out of the unenviable and nearly unprecedented situation with all they really wanted.
Another first-round pick in a strong draft class.
Chicago dealt Mirotic and a 2018 second-round draft pick to New Orleans for a first-round pick, center Omer Asik, guard Jameer Nelson and guard Tony Allen. The Pelicans’ first-rounder is top-five protected in 2018, making it extremely likely to convey this June as New Orleans sits in seventh in the Western Conference now. Additionally, the Bulls obtained the right to swap 2021 second-round picks with the Pelicans.
When it was all done and he took to the phone line late Thursday afternoon, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson explained that it simply “made sense” to continue a plan that began with the trade of star Jimmy Butler on draft night last June.
The Bulls had also held discussions with the Jazz about Mirotic recently as well, a source said.
“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,” 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 (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.”
Even as Mirotic, 26, played the best basketball of his career after missing the season’s first 23 games, the Bulls believed that he didn’t fit the rebuilding timeline. He was on a path to being a free agent in summer 2019, when the Bulls will almost certainly have given Zach LaVine big money and when Kris Dunn will be eligible for a rookie extension.
“We’ve got to look long term,” Paxson said. “As we mapped out what Niko would be looking for financially, especially going out, that wasn’t a part of our timeline. We now have a situation where we’re invested in these young guys. Our focus remains on growth and development of them. In that regard, this is consistent with kind of what we set out to do on draft night.”
The complicated trade — which was completed two days after Bulls-Pelicans negotiations for Mirotic initially fell apart — had many moving parts. The Bulls absorbed the $10.6 million that Asik is making this season into the trade exception they owned from the Butler trade last June. That led to the Bulls now boasting a new $12.5-million trade exception, which they have exactly one year to use. The Bulls also waived forward Quincy Pondexter to create the needed roster space to acquire two extra players in the trade.
The Bulls will keep the 31-year-old Asik, whose salary of $11.3 million in 2018-’19 the Pelicans wanted no part of. Operating below the salary floor now and with no designs of playoff contention in 2018-’19, the Bulls were willing to absorb the bad contract. Paxson indicated it was too early to know whether the Bulls may use the stretch provision — a way of spreading out money to waived players over more seasons for salary cap purposes — on Asik down the line. For 2019-’20, Asik’s contract is $3 million guaranteed and about $12 million total, and that structure could become valuable again as a flexible expiring contract, Paxson said.
Asik played for the Bulls from 2010-’12.
“We know he’s a great guy, a great teammate and will be a terrific pro for us,” Paxson said.
The Bulls will also keep Nelson, 35, for now. Nelson is averaging 5.1 points in 20.9 minutes across 43 games this season. He and Asik were scheduled to fly to Los Angeles soon to meet the Bulls, who play the Clippers on Saturday.
The team remains unsure of the status of Allen, Paxson said, though it’s expected that he’ll be waived. Allen has averaged 4.7 points in 22 games this season.
What’s more certain is that there will be only few, if any, minutes available for Asik and Nelson. The Mirotic trade also served as a means to give youngsters like center Cris Felicio and forward Paul Zipser more playing time, Paxson said. They’re two players who have yet to prove they fit in the Bulls’ long-term vision.
Paxson also mentioned that point guard Cameron Payne should be recovered from his foot injury shortly after the All-Star break, and the Bulls want to take a look at him as well.
“When you look at where we’re at in the season, the record that we have, we have to continue to find out about our young players,” Paxson said. “This type of deal allows us to put Paul and Cris out on the floor more than they’ve been all season long. Part of this is our job to evaluate what they are and who fits into our future. The only way you do that is by seeing them out on the court. So that’s what it means.”
The meaning for Mirotic is clear. He gets to join a playoff contender and have the chance to start, all away from Portis like he desired. Paxson stopped short of saying he was surprised how Mirotic had rebuilt his trade value after three inconsistent seasons and the Portis incident.
“I don’t know if surprise is the way to look at it,” Paxson said. “I think that when Niko did come back, he played with great confidence and played very well. And because of that, his value was as high as it had ever been.
“I want to thank Niko for the time he spent here. We were pleased when we drafted him years ago, and he gave us a lot of good basketball.”
With a record of 27-23, the Pelicans were in line for the No. 17 pick in the draft entering play Thursday night. So long as it doesn’t reach the top-five realm, it’s an asset that will soon become the Bulls’.
“Our goal in this in order to move him was to get a draft asset that we thought was valuable to us, and we feel we’ve done that,” Paxson said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.