The Luol Deng-Andrew Bynum trade signaled two teams hoping to go opposite directions in the short term.
The Cavaliers clearly want to make the playoffs. Dan Gilbert has said so, and the franchise’s moves reflect that goal.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying the Bulls clearly want to miss the playoffs, but when you have a 14-18 record, you don’t trade one of your top players for only draft picks unless you’re at least comfortable in the lottery.
But it’s very possible, perhaps bordering on likely, the Cavaliers miss the postseason and the Bulls make it – a twisted reality that adds a little more intrigue to this deal if you, like me, enjoy a little chaos.
Every trade poses long-term risk. The Bulls don’t yet know how they’ll be able to use their new financial flexibility, and the Cavaliers don’t yet know how valuable the picks they surrendered will become. Those far-reaching ramifications are difficult to predict, and although they’re essential to every trade, it can be excusable when teams incorrectly project the distant future.
But the rest of this season? That should be in sharper focus.
At face value, this trade seems to have relatively simple short-term ramifications. The Cavaliers add a good player, so they’ll get better. The Bulls lose a good player, so they’ll get worse.
However, the current standings complicate just what that those two effects will mean on the playoff race.
Chicago is sixth in the Eastern Conference and holds a two-game buffer for its playoff spot. Cleveland, in 13th place, is three games out of the last postseason spot.
That doesn’t seem like much for either team to overcome in each direction, but it is. We’re 70 days into the season, and at this point historically, a large majority of playoff spots are already settled.
Of course, some teams are so far ahead, there’s practically no chance they’ll slip out of the postseason picture. Other teams are so far behind, they definitely won’t make a run.
But even focusing on teams like the Cavaliers and Bulls, teams closer to the line, doesn’t suggest a flip in the standings is likely. In the last five 82-game seasons, two-thirds of teams within three games either side of the playoff cutoff 70 days into the season have remained on the same side of the cutoff when the season ended.
Simply, the Bulls have their work cut out for them to get better lottery odds, and the Cavaliers face an even tough task in making the playoffs. Swapping Deng will help, but these aren’t the only teams to make a mid-season trade in the last five full seasons. Playoff shakeups this far into the season just aren’t common.