In early January, the Bulls were 14-18 and they traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for future draft picks and Andrew Bynum, whom they would turn around and release.
On the surface, the move looked like a classic sign that the Bulls were going to tank the rest of the season while also saving nearly $US15 million in salary and luxury tax fees.
But then something strange happened. The Bulls suddenly became one of the best teams in the NBA and now have to be considered a contender in what originally appeared to be a two-team race in the Eastern Conference between the Pacers and Heat.
Since trading Deng, a player who was averaging 19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game with Chicago, the Bulls are 19-9. The Pacers and Heat are both 20-8 over the same span.
The Bulls were able to overcome the loss of Deng the old fashioned way. They had their top players pick up the slack.
Prior to the trade, Joakim Noah was averaging 10.9 points, 3.5 assists, and 10.1 rebounds per game. Since then, he is averaging 13.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 12.9 rebounds per game.
In fact, if we look at the key stats for five of the Bulls’ top players, we can see they have gone up in almost every case (see right, click image for larger version).
On top of that, there is still an outside chance that Derrick Rose could return at some point. While that may be a long-shot, it will be tempting if he is healthy and the Bulls move deep into the playoffs.
But even without Rose, the Bulls are now a contender thanks to trading Deng and an Eastern Conference Finals showdown between the Pacers and Heat is no longer a sure thing.
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