The Chicago Bulls have their main man back in Derrick Rose, but are risking losing one of their most important cogs by discontinuing contract extension talks with forward Luol Deng. The 28-year-old Deng has been one of the most consistent and reliable players on the roster since 2004, but he is entering the final year of his $71 million six-year pact, and it could very well be his last.
The Bulls need to reevaluate just how important Deng is to their club. At six-foot-nine, Deng plays the small forward position with a major height advantage over the majority of his counterparts. The position boasts several of the best scorers in the game: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George — all on teams that the Bulls will need to get past should they ever contend for an NBA title. Deng’s defense is lauded as some of the best the game has to offer, and his offense is nothing to laugh about either. With Rose returning from a year-long absence after knee surgery, Deng could be even more important on offense when opponents pay more attention to Rose and leave Deng unguarded for open looks.
That said, the Bulls haven’t fully closed the door on Deng — they’ve just decided that they would table talks until next offseason when he is officially a free agent. Most NBA players prefer to lock into a new contract well before their current one expires. Since Deng will not have this luxury, he and his agent Herb Rudoy have decided that they would do their due diligence in the offseason on getting Deng onto any team that truly wants the Sudan-born baller.
Perhaps the Bulls are thinking about the 2014 offseason, too, when there will be the gaudiest crop of free agents available since 2010. But the Bulls aren’t going to be in the mix for James, Anthony or Dwyane Wade. They won’t even be able to interest any of the B- or C-level free agents due to their salary commitments for next season. The Bulls are locked into nearly $60 million in contracts between just a handful of players next season and could only offer their mini mid-level exception and veteran minimum offers to fill out the roster. The NBA set the salary cap at $58,679 million this season, which means by next season it’ll likely go up just a few million — at most. However, teams are able to exceed their salary cap to bring their roster to capacity by offering veteran minimums. The only way the Bulls can offer more than that is to players with so-called Bird rights — under which players with more than three seasons under their belts can get contracted by their current team, no matter the money involved and regardless of the team’s other committed salaries — and Deng qualifies.
For the Bulls, losing Deng has no upside. They would be wise to pull a sign-and-trade with Deng so they’re able to use the money they’re only allowed to spend on Deng to bring in a player they’d prefer over him. But Deng would ultimately have to accept the trade — leaving the Bulls with fewer options.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau knows that Deng is vital to the team’s success — so it appears to be a front-office stall. “If he’s not shooting well, he gives you great defense. No matter how the game is going, he’s always going to be there late for you, no matter if it’s pick-and-roll offense, swinging the ball, moving without the ball, making a great random cut from the weak side. He has great impact on winning. You can’t ask anything more of one of your best players.” So how much weight Thibodeau carries with the Chicago Bull executives will go a long way here in deciding Deng’s fate. But there is no scenario in which the Bulls are better off without Deng — especially knowing his replacement would be a player worth only a veteran’s minimum contract.