Sometimes all you need is a second chance, as the New Orleans Pelicans proved when they acquired Nikola Mirotic from the Chicago Bulls. The teams were reportedly close to a trade a couple of days ago before falling apart. But things change quickly this time of year and the trade was resurrected. The Pelicans acquired Nikola Mirotic and a 2018 second round pick for Tony Allen, Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson, a protected 2018 first round pick and the rights to swap second round picks in 2021. Chicago is also waiving Quincy Pondexter to create the roster space necessary for this 3-for-1 swap.
When DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon last week, the Pelicans were left scrambling for depth. A challenge in acquiring said depth was the looming hard cap, which New Orleans was hovering just below. It looked like a promising season might end in disappointment once again, with the Pels on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
However, after getting close to a trade for Mirotic once, Dell Demps refused to give up. This wasn’t as easy a trade to put together as one might think. New Orleans had to work under the hard cap, agree with Chicago on protections for the first round pick, get the Bulls to eat an additional salary (it ended up being two), but most importantly, work around Mirotic’s no-trade clause.
Because Mirotic was on essentially a one-year deal (his team option does not count until exercised) with Bird rights after, he has a de facto no trade clause. This is because Mirotic would have lost his Bird rights if traded and then his new team declined his team option for the second year. This is reportedly what scuttled the initial trade plans.
But nothing in the NBA is ever really dead and the Pelicans and Bulls got back together. By tweaking the parameters and agreeing to pick up the second year of Mirotic’s deal, the no-trade clause was eliminated and the trade agreed upon. Getting under the hard cap was the next challenge, which was accomplished by New Orleans sending two minimum deals to Chicago in Allen and Nelson.
On the court, this trade unquestionably improves New Orleans. Without Cousins, the Pelicans had precious little depth up front. Davis had moved to the starting center position and Dante Cunningham moved into the starting lineup at the four. Behind them, the Pels had exhumed Asik and were giving him about 10 minutes per game. Without overstating it, Mirotic is a massive upgrade for New Orleans.
Mirotic is having easily his best season since coming to the NBA in 2014. He’s scoring a career-high 16.8 points per game on career-best 47.4 percent shooting from the floor and 42.9 percent from behind the arc. Prior to this year his career-highs were 11.8 points per game, 41.3 percent shooting overall and 39 percent on three-pointers. For good measure, he’s also grabbing a career-high 6.4 rebounds per game, while posting the highest assist rate of his career.
Mirotic will either start next to Davis, or come off the bench if the Pelicans can land another big man. More on that in a minute. Either way, he’s an upgrade over any non-Davis big on the roster. Cunningham has played well, but he can't compare to Mirotic as a shooter or creator. As for that other big, reports are that New Orleans will make a hard push to sign Greg Monroe, who was recently bought out by the Phoenix Suns. Monroe is a Louisiana native and could fill Cousins’ spot in the starting lineup. That would allow Davis to shift back to his preferred power forward spot and keep Mirotic coming off the bench. The Pelicans also opened up an additional roster spot, which could be used to pursue further help on the wing with another buyout candidate.
As for what New Orleans gave up, it wasn’t all that much. Asik had no role and is on one of the NBA’s worst contracts. Allen has been injured for much of the season and Nelson was out of the rotation. It is hard to see the Pelicans give up yet another first round pick (Davis is the only player on the roster that New Orleans drafted in the first round), but the value here was right. Not only did they acquire Mirotic, who will help this season and next, but they also got off the money owed to Asik. Many had speculated that getting out from under the Asik contract would cost the Pels a first rounder by itself, so this is great work by Demps.
To add to that solid work, the Pelicans also reacquired their own 2018 second round pick from the Bulls. Funnily enough, this is now the third time the Pelicans have owned that pick! They originally owned it, traded it to Miami, got it back from the Heat, then traded it to Chicago to salary dump Quincy Pondexter and have now reacquired it again.
Without Cousins, the Pelicans season seemed doomed. Adding Mirotic is a great move for this year and next. Add to it the possibility of signing Monroe too, and it’s as good a possible outcome as you could have hoped for. To clear future money is just the cherry on top.
Grade for the Pelicans: A
The Bulls are clearly in rebuilding mode, and no matter how well Nikola Mirotic was playing, he had no place on a rebuilding team. Chicago has Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis, who play the same positions as Mirotic and they’d rather give all of those developmental minutes to those players. Markkanen has already shown he’s a keeper as a rookie and Portis has been productive whenever he’s been given playing time. Clearing out Mirotic opens up even more minutes for both of them.
Adding Omer Asik isn’t something you would prefer to do, even if it is a homecoming for the Turkish big man. The Bulls can afford to eat his contract though. They can easily absorb his salary in this rebuilding year. Next year they could either stretch the approximately $14 million in total that Asik is owed over five season. Or, if they don’t need cap space, they could eat the $11 million for next season too. That would leave just a small $3 million guarantee for 2019-20 left to deal with.
Chicago was unlikely to get a first round pick for Mirotic alone. Because of the no-trade clause/team option challenge, the Bulls were unlikely to find a suitable home that they and Mirotic could agree one. By agreeing to eat Asik’s contract, it opened up that door for Chicago. Giving the Pelicans back their 2018 second round pick is a little questionable, but the Bulls seemingly don’t value second rounders all that much, witness the Cameron Payne trade with Oklahoma City last year and selling a second round pick to Golden State at the 2017 draft.
The Bulls are reportedly going to keep Jameer Nelson, but will look to work a buyout with Tony Allen. Nelson can provide some veteran leadership to an otherwise young point guard group. Allen will likely catch on with a playoff team that needs a wing defender. Quincy Pondexter, who was waived, deserves a ton of kudos for making it back onto an NBA court after years of injuries, and could catch on with a team looking for a wing shooter.
Chicago now projects to have around $23 million in cap space this summer, inclusive of cap holds for restricted free agents Zach LaVine and David Nwaba. This is along with likely two first round picks and their other young talent in Markkanen, Portis and Kris Dunn. If the Bulls can find a trade for Robin Lopez, either before the deadline or this summer, they’ll free up even more cap space. The Bulls don’t really do long rebuilds and have this one on track to be a short one, as they build around young talent, cap space and draft picks.
Grade for the Bulls: B+