Losing Luol Deng a Necessity, Not Choice for Chicago Bulls

Looming Salary Cap Issues Too Much to Bear

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Losing Luol Deng a Necessity, Not Choice for Chicago Bulls
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Luol Deng.

COMMENTARY | Luol Deng, the 9-year veteran small forward, recently saw contract extension talks break down as he heads into the final year of his current contract.

While the talk from both sides would suggest that the Bulls do not value Deng going forward, the situation is a bit more complicated. The salary cap rules in the NBA make the retention of Deng a near impossibility.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Bulls will have the league's third-highest payroll at roughly $80 million, behind only the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets (the Nets are over $20 million ahead of the second-place Heat). The NBA salary cap, for this season, is set at just under $59 million. Luxury taxes, monetary penalties inflicted for going too far above the cap, begin at about $63 million. Those figures alone should tell fans that the Bulls have a bit of an issue with their payroll.

The NBA salary cap

First of all, a brief explanation is needed; after all, what is a cap worth if several teams are over that cap? The NBA employs a "soft cap," which means that there are circumstances in which teams can spend more than the cap allows. The reason the soft cap exists rather than a hard one is to help teams keep their own players. Nobody would be pleased if a player like Derrick Rose had to leave because there was no way, within the rules, to retain him under a hard salary cap.

Most exceptions to the salary cap involve giving teams a means to keep their own players. Teams over the cap have several opportunities to keep their own players but very few opportunities to sign free agents. Being over the cap makes it impossible to sign a top-notch free agent earning more than $5 million.

The Bulls, being over the salary cap and luxury tax threshold, could not give any free agent more than $3 million in this past offseason. That $3 million was spent on Mike Dunleavy, and the Bulls could only sign players for minimum salary after that until next year. Draft picks can be signed for their slotted amounts no matter what, under the NBA rules.

How can the Bulls deal with their payroll?

The question that follows, then, is Luol Deng a player that can be re-signed via a salary cap exception? The answer is yes. This is why I call his retention a "near impossibility" since the Bulls can bring him back without violating league rules. The problem, unfortunately, is that he is probably not quite worth the cost. More understanding of the payroll issues ahead of the Bulls is necessary to see why bringing Deng back is unlikely.

In the 2014-15, the Bulls owe $61 million to the players currently signed for that season. This does not include Luol Deng, but does include the following: Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Jimmy Butler, and Marquis Teague. Due to a one-time exception to the rules after the salary cap was lowered prior to the 2011 season, the Bulls may use the "amnesty provision" on one player who was signed before the 2011 season. The eligible players on the Bulls are Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.

The amnesty provision would release the Bulls of all the salary cap commitments to that player, who would likely be Carlos Boozer if it is used at all. He will earn $16.8 million in 2014-15, so that amount would be subtracted from the Bulls' salary cap figure. Boozer would then be put into an auction of sorts, where all teams other than the Bulls and teams that do not have salary cap room to sign free agents could bid on Boozer's services for the remainder of his contract. The Bulls would have to pay Boozer the difference between the auction price and his actual salary, but that number would not count toward the cap.

Without Deng and with Boozer amnestied, the Bulls would then owe around $44 million in salary cap commitments for 2014-15. This is well below the salary cap, which will probably not be much higher than $60 million if at all for that season. Due to long-term contracts given to Rose, Gibson, and Noah, this number stays at roughly the same level for the following season. This situations offers the Bulls some breathing room to sign key players, but they could not sign one free agent earning maximum dollars. For instance, LeBron James could be a free agent that offseason, but the Bulls would not be able to afford him at market value.

What must happen for Deng to stay

Luol Deng earns $14 million this season and will likely seek a similar yearly salary going forward. The Bulls will have a choice to make: Do they forsake financial flexibility for the next several years, being unable to bring in free agents of much consequence, or let Deng go? The likely answer is that the Bulls let Deng go in favor of bringing in multiple players at lower salaries. Without an amnesty of Boozer's final year, there is absolutely no flexibility in the 2014-15 season with or without Deng in the fold.

In light of this numbers game, Deng has little chance of remaining a Bull. An unprecedented amount of loyalty and willingness to pay luxury tax penalties would have to take place for the Bulls to keep their defensive stopper. There is only one scenario in which Deng would be a relative lock to stay in Chicago: an NBA championship. This is the reason the Miami Heat can sustain their success; they have all the players they need under contract already and thus the allure of high-priced free agents is no reason to trim payroll.

A legitimate shot at an NBA championship is the reason the Bulls have refrained from unloading Deng and possibly other veterans. This core of players has not been able to play together in the playoffs since it was first assembled in 2011. That core will have to beat the odds (and the Miami Heat along with the Western Conference champion) if it wants to stay together beyond the coming season, which begins just before Halloween against the defending champions.

Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer on the Yahoo Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and owns the film and TV blog The Renegade's Film Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.

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