Luol Deng pauses to catch his breath in April (Getty Images)
The Chicago Bulls are a strange, very good basketball team that tends to work on an island. They typically give minutes – extended minutes – to various types of players willing to work within their construct, and All-Star small forward Luol Deng acclimates to the organization vision exceedingly well. He plays wearying defense, tries hard on offense, and usually works nearly 40 minutes a night. As a result, his per game stats are often inflated, and his shooting numbers are poor because Luol is constantly working through various injuries.
Also, as a result, the team’s coaching staff tends to regard him as indispensable.
Deng is a free agent next summer, and both his camp and the Chicago Bulls have attempted to negotiate a contract extension before the 2013-14 season starts. The incentive for Chicago is obvious – they’d like to see if they can lock Deng into a three-year extension before a five-year (from Chicago) or four-year (from other teams) extension becomes available when Luol becomes a free agent. On Deng’s side? He’d like a little bit of long term insurance after working through broken fingers, torn ligaments, and serious illness. Especially after leading the NBA in minutes per game for two consecutive seasons.
Talks have broken down, though, according to CSN Chicago’s Aggrey Sam:
Yahoo! Sports reported that initial discussions had been taken place between the two parties in separate late-June and early-July meetings regarding keeping the All-Star small forward in Chicago beyond this season, the final year of his current deal. But when the talks were revisited, the Bulls opted to put those plans on hold for the time being and risk the team’s longest-tenured player becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
“We were optimistic,” the source said of the mentality Deng’s camp had heading into the late August meeting, approximately two weeks ago. “Our goal was to get an extension done this summer. If that’s not what they want to do, so be it.
“We’re not upset, Luol isn’t upset. We’re just looking forward to this season and next summer,” continued the individual, who acknowledged that Bulls management expressed how much they value the two-time All-Star, even stating their desire to see him retire in a Bulls uniform. “They were willing to wait and risk losing him next summer as an unrestricted free agent.”
The “risk losing him next summer” shot from Deng’s camp is their biggest weapon at this point. And if the Chicago Bulls have proven anything in Jerry Reinsdorf’s time running the team, it’s a somewhat hallow shot across the bow. Reinsdorf doesn’t mind losing players and letting a reserve step up if it means retaining “flexibility.”
Deng’s camp knows it has a problem. The ascension of shooting guard Jimmy Butler has given some Bulls fans an irrational confidence as it heads into 2013-14. Shooting guard and small forward slots are just about interchangeable in the modern era, and Butler did a fine job of approximating Deng’s work on both ends last season either alongside Luol, or in replacing him. Butler isn’t a great player, he’ll never be an All-Star, but when you work hard and play for over 40 minutes a night, the per game stats tend to pile up, and you tend to make an impression. In that way more than any other, Butler compares favorably with Deng.
Deng made the All-Star team for the second consecutive season in 2012-13, mostly on his defensive merits. For a slasher, he shoots a low percentage (under 42 percent combined over the last two years, while struggling with wrist and thumb injuries) and rarely gets to the line. He has not developed into an average three-point shooter, and he rarely posts up. And though he is brilliant defensively, he’s also plying his trade as a defensive swingman, usually the most inconsequential defensive position.
Luol won’t turn 29 until the last week of the 2013-14 season, but the minutes are piling up. He’ll be entering his tenth NBA season in October, he’s logged six postseason’s worth of minutes and played international ball in several summers. All this on top of his massive minutes log and creeping injuries. It’s safe to presume that his 29-through-33 years won’t resemble many other small forwards of his age.
The popular thought in Chicago, for years, had the team letting Luol walk while waiving big forward Carlos Boozer with the amnesty provision in 2014. By then, fans hoped, the growth of Butler and Taj Gibson, paired with the possibility of much-lauded international prospect Nikola Mirotic coming into town would be enough to tide things over while the team utilized cap space to bring in replacements. Toss in the team’s eventual grab of a Charlotte Bobcats draft pick (top ten protected in the 2014 draft, top eight protected in 2015, unprotected in 2016) and the possibility of flipping Deng onto another team at the trade deadline, and you have a litany of Bulls fans giddy at the possibilities.
The problem for them is, historically, the Chicago Bulls just don’t work that way. And for as much stick as we give Boozer, and as much as we’ve cooled over Deng in this column, finding replacements for their production with that cap space will be nigh on impossible.
Typically, Chicago would let Deng walk, waive Boozer, and work around the edges while extending Jimmy Butler. Typically, the Bulls are far more interested in the savings, while pointing to the fact that they’re not keen to pay the luxury tax for a third consecutive season. With the Bulls slated to be a mid-level exception away from paying the tax in 2014-15 even if Deng walks for nothing, this is a concern. Especially because there are only eight rotation players on the books for that particular season.
Aggrey Sam quotes an anonymous “rival executive” as pointing out that Deng should be expected to field offers of around four-years and $48 million for his services next season; a number that is, frankly, ridiculous. Ridiculous, but also likely correct, as many general managers still focus on star power and familiarity while ignoring Deng’s average Player Efficiency Rating and the tread that is already on his tires. To say nothing of the fact that they’d be paying Luol Deng around $12 million to play basketball in 2017-18, in the months before he turns 34.
Even with those bunko GMs still out there – as plenty of teams will have cap space in 2014, hoping for a LeBron and ending up with a Luol – don’t expect other squads to line up to take Deng off Chicago’s hands at the trade deadline this February. Teams aren’t going to line up to help a hopeful contender like the Chicago Bulls get younger and cheaper. Unless there’s a team out there willing to make a mistake, and we write that with the highest respect for Luol Deng as a player and person in place.
All of this leaves both the Bulls and Luol in an uneasy situation, as you’ve no doubt realized by now.
Deng’s fortunes aren’t due to the Chicago design; he’s worked his way toward these contracts, and those plaudits. But any team lining up to take Luol Deng on for big money for four years in 2014 is setting themselves up for a disappointing alliance. Yes, he’s coming off two consecutive All-Star games. And, yes, he will play all out basketball for you for 40 minutes. And, yes, the wrist and thumb injuries will heal soon enough. A healthy 28-year old Luol Deng is probably setting himself up for a career year in 2013-14, in ways that have nothing to do with his contract year.
What the Chicago Bulls or any other potential suitor decides to do with the fallout of that career year is anyone’s guess.
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