The Chicago Bulls’ front office has enough questions to worry over as the 2012-13 NBA season draws near, but one question that isn’t getting enough attention revolves around the forward Luol Deng. Will Deng still be a Bull by the end of the season?
Some signs point to yes, some to no. The eight-year veteran (all eight in Chicago) averaged 15.3 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Bulls last season and was named to the NBA All-Star team. Sadly, though it was Deng’s first All-Star appearance, it was arguably one of the worst seasons. He shot just 41.2 percent from the field, and his 15.3 points were the third lowest total of his career.
There were rumors around the NBA Draft that Deng was on his way out. The Daily Herald's Mike McGraw reported the Bulls were looking to trade Deng for fiscal reasons, while the Chicago Sun-Times also reported that the Bulls were looking to trade Deng for a lottery selection in the draft.
Will Deng still be a Bull by the end of the season? Let’s look at the pros and cons of the Bulls trading Deng this season.
Rose is on board for a max contract over the next five seasons, and he deserves it. Noah is booked for $48 million over the next four, which might seem a bit high, but considering the prices for defensive big men nowadays, he’s on a fair deal. Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert got bigger max contracts, and JaVale McGee (a far worse player than Noah) got nearly the same contract.
Boozer is set for $47.1 million over three years, and, at that massive price tag, there is no way Chicago could trade him (although they could use the amnesty clause on him next summer… more on that later). That leaves Deng, the only shorter term contract: he will be paid $27.5 million over the next two years.
The Bulls would never trade Rose, and they can’t trade Boozer. That leaves Noah or Deng, both players who were in trade rumors before the NBA Draft, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News. Of the two, Noah is arguably on the better deal, which leaves Deng the odd man out.
Chicago’s payroll can’t stay this high this long, especially not when the price tag is $56 million for four players.
The Bulls have yet to use the amnesty clause granted by the latest CBA agreement. By using the amnesty clause, the Bulls would waive a player, pay a majority of his salary off the books, and save a ton of cap space.
Boozer has been considered a failure since coming to Chicago, but he might be posed for a breakout season (check out my article on exactly why Boozer may shine this year). If he continues to struggle, he might well be amnestied next summer.
Taking Boozer’s contract off the books next offseason would save the Bulls $15.3 million in 2013-14 and $16.8 million in 2014-15. That savings would allow the Bulls to keep Deng.
For a total breakdown of Boozer and the amnesty clause, check out this article I published earlier this month.
Deng is in his NBA prime, a 27-year-old coming off his first All-Star game. He’s an elite level defender on a nice two-year contract.
The time to trade Deng is now if Chicago wants a really good deal.
With Derrick Rose out, the Bulls offense will have to go primarily through both Deng and Boozer. What happens if Deng continues last season’s shooting struggles? If he has another year with a 40 percent field goal clip, Chicago might not find as solid a market for his services next season.
It is a bad situation for the Bulls. If they trade Deng now, they’ll be giving away any shot at the Playoffs this season—if they don’t trade him and he struggles under the offensive pressure, he won’t be as desirable next year.
It basically comes down to this: do the Bulls trust that Deng can handle being a top scoring option until Rose returns? If they do, he won’t be traded. If they doubt it, he’ll be gone while his stock is high.
Chicago obviously believes that, if healthy, they can challenge any Eastern Conference foe for a spot in the championship. If they didn’t believe that, they would have amnestied Carlos Boozer this summer and likely Deng would already have been traded.
When it comes to their Eastern Conference rivals, Deng is arguable the second most important Bull (behind Rose, of course). Deng is one of the NBA’s best defenders at his position, and that is very important in the East, where he goes up nightly against guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Danny Granger and Paul Pierce.
In a Playoff series against the Heat, he’s the Bulls’ best shot at stopping LeBron. Trading him would not only hurt the Bulls in the short term, but it might damage any ability they have to challenge the Heat long term.
These next two reasons for/against the Bulls trading Deng are dependent on two separate scenarios.
Scenario No. 1: Deng and Boozer both struggle, Chicago starts off the season with a horrible record, and there isn’t any way their playoff hopes survive without Rose. If this scenario plays out, expect Deng to be gone long before the end of the season.
According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, a safe estimate for Rose's return is March. The Bulls will have to last that long without their MVP.
That leaves the ball in the hands of both Deng and Boozer, both of whom will need to impress both to keep the Bulls playoff hopes alive—and to keep their jobs in Chicago.
If the Bulls come out of the gate and struggle big time, Chicago might just opt to scratch the season as a loss. While they won’t be able to get rid of Boozer (they have to wait until next offseason to use the amnesty clause on him, and no one would trade for him), they could trade Deng.
A bad start to the season would certainly increase the Bulls’ chances of tanking away the season, and to do that, they’d need to trade away Deng.
Scenario No. 2: Deng and Boozer thrive and the Bulls stay squarely in the playoff hunt. When Rose returns in March, he joins a team ready for a Championship run.
Chicago obviously believes in their squad, or they would have made their trades this offseason. If their faith is rewarded by strong play from Deng, there is no way they’ll be shipping out Deng this year—or maybe even next offseason.
In a perfect world, Rose carries the team, and the excellent balance of Deng, Noah and Boozer provides enough depth that they are right back to being championship contenders. Why would they trade Deng, who fits so well, when they're serious contenders?
The Bulls were the No. 1 seed in the East last year, and if the team looks posed to make serious runs year-in year-out, they will hold the squad together as long as they fiscally can afford it.