A potential trade sending Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans survived for about 20 minutes on the Twitterverse.
By the time it ceased to exist, Mirotic boarded the team charter Tuesday afternoon and joined the Bulls on a flight to Portland for the start of a three-game road trip.
Whether he’ll play against the Blazers on Wednesday — the Bulls say he was held out of Monday’s practice with a lower leg strain — or be dealt to another team before the NBA trade deadline hits on Feb. 8 remains unknown.
It’s no secret the Bulls have sought a new home for Mirotic. His basketball skills are similar to teammates Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis, and the Bulls don’t seem to think he’s a great fit for their locker room.
NBC Sports Chicago was first to report a deal was brewing to send Mirotic to New Orleans for a first-round draft pick and ex-Bulls center Omer Asik. Not long after, ESPN updated the story, saying the deal had fallen apart for now.
In theory, the deal makes sense. The Bulls are looking to add draft picks to the rebuilding project and New Orleans could use another scorer after losing center DeMarcus Cousins for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
The Pelicans would be using the first-round pick to secure a salary dump. Asik, who has played in just 13 games this season, is owed $11.3 million next season, then has a $3 million buyout for 2018-19.
The problem was the second year of Mirotic’s contract, according to a league source. The fourth-year forward has a team option worth $12.5 million for next season along with a no-trade clause in this year’s deal. In order for Mirotic to agree to be traded, he would likely request that second year be guaranteed.
Mirotic’s performance this season would merit that sort of salary. He’s the Bulls’ leading scorer at 16.8 points per game, shooting 43 percent from 3-point range, and has posted those numbers in part-time minutes off the bench.
New Orleans is hoping to re-sign Cousins this summer, though. The Pelicans have already committed to large salaries for Anthony Davis ($25.4 million next season) and Jrue Holiday ($26.1 million), so they are concerned about having to pay the luxury tax. It’s not clear if this trade could take on a different form or if it’s completely dependent on Mirotic waiving his no-trade clause without a guarantee for next season’s salary.
The Bulls still have more than a week to find a suitable deal for Mirotic. It’s also conceivable he could stay with the Bulls. They might find a better trade around the draft or even next season, when he’d have a true expiring contract.
The Bulls’ rebuilding project is off to a decent start with a nucleus of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Markkanen. Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba and Portis are not likely to be traded since they are contributing players on smaller contracts. But the Bulls are likely open to most any move that could bring back a first-round pick or young talent.
A couple other potential trade pieces — center Robin Lopez and forward Justin Holiday — are signed through next season. Lopez, especially, will be more attractive in a trade when he has an expiring contract next year. But the Bulls also like his performance as a veteran leader and Lopez has produced a career-high 12.7 points this season, so it won’t be a surprise if he sticks around.
Trade season officially began Monday when the Clippers sent Blake Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and two draft picks, a deal that caught most people by surprise.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was asked about his message to players while trade rumors are circling.
“The No. 1 thing right now, we’ve talked about it all along, is continue to go out and worry about the things that you can control,” he said. “That’s playing hard and giving great effort and preparing yourself the right way.”
While Mirotic made the trip to Portland, Markkanen stayed back for personal reasons, but could join the team later in the week. Dunn, who has missed the past five games in concussion protocol, also did not travel.