Luol Deng signed a six-year, $71 million contract in the summer of 2008. Since then, it’s been a subject of controversy. Some feel he was getting paid elite player money and has never lived up to that contract.
Others feel that, particularly since Tom Thibodeau has come to the Bulls, he’s been the second-most important player behind Derrick Rose.
In 2011 Slam awarded him the Most Underrated Player, or MUP Award.
The Chicago Bulls as a team won 67 percent of their games without Deng, the same percentage as they won without Rose.
The team has won 53 of the last 61 games where both players have started, a remarkable .868 winning percentage.
Certainly, there is an argument to be made that Deng is living up to his contract, particularly if “winning” is the test of the argument. The Bulls have made the postseason every year since he signed the extension.
But there is the other side of the argument too. They made it to the playoffs, yes, but they lost in the first round all but one year since the contract was signed.
More importantly, when the Bulls needed him to step up and take the offensive pressure of Rose in 2011 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, he wasn’t able to do it.
When the Bulls need him to carry the team in the playoffs after Rose’s injury in 2012, he wasn’t able to do it.
There’s a lot of talk about Carlos Boozer lately and whether he’ll be amnestied, but there’s another story one year further down the line which also requires paying attention to. What do the Bulls do when Deng’s contract expires?
There’s been some speculation that the Bulls will try and get back in the “championship game” not this year and not next, but the year after that. There’s reason to suspect that, including Kirk Hinrich’s two-year deal.
The reason being that it takes about one year to recover from ACL surgery, which makes this year a wash as far as the Bulls are concerned because Derrick Rose may be back, but he won’t be all the way back, and it won’t be until late in the year.
Then, even once players come back, it takes about a year before they fully return to pre-injured level of play. So that would make the 2013-14 season a wash as well.
Then the following year, 2014-15, the Bulls will be hoping to add Nikola Mirotic. Derrick Rose should be 100 percent. And on top of all that, they’ll have some real cap space to work with, especially if they amnesty Carlos Boozer.
That’s also the year that Luol Deng’s contract goes off the books, and the Bulls will be faced with the question of whether or not they should re-sign him or if that money would be better spent elsewhere. What they do and how much they pay may very well depend on what he does this year.
The Bulls could go after a max contract free agent, or close to it, with only $40 million or so on the books (depending on what happens with the Taj Gibson deal). LeBron James? Dwyane Wade? They’ll both have player options that year.
Luol Deng needs to establish that he is a player they can’t live without, not that he’s merely a great person, or a good player or even an All-Star player. The whole “three darned good players and a superstar” mentality may have started wear thin by then. Getting rid of two of the really good players could allow them to ink a second superstar.
If you have Derrick Rose and LeBron James on offense, how do you guard that? How do you even begin to try and guard that? Prayer? Weapons? Letting Deng go might not be the easiest thing to do, but management would be foolish to not consider it. Before that happens, Deng needs to make that thought apocryphal.
Deng can’t be a top-10 player, but he has to learn to fake it.
This is Deng’s chance to step up and be an offensive staple; not merely scoring when needed, but depended on when the scoring needs an ignition. It’s his chance to be the only thing he’s never been, an elite offensive player, or close to it.
The beauty of Deng is that he does everything that is asked of him, whether it’s defense, stepping out to the three, changing roles or any of a host of “glue” tasks. He’s done everything the team has ever asked.
What he needs to do next is what hasn’t been asked and what can’t be asked. It has to be volunteered. He needs to step up and be that crunch-time player. He has to be not just the “spine” of the team, but a player who can carry the team on his back. He needs to become the kind of player that can simply will a win the way that Derrick Rose does.
He needs to become that second superstar, not just an All-Star. Some would say that’s not fair to ask of him, and it isn’t. But that’s what the Bulls need, and if Deng is there and not the second superstar, then his contract prevents them from getting one.
This year, while Rose sits, he has his chance. If he can lead the team to a winning percentage of over .500 (preferably closer to .600), he’ll prove he can be that guy. Proving that he can be that guy will help him believe he is that guy in the postseason.
He doesn’t need to just fulfill his contract, he needs to exceed it. He needs to be a $15 million player in an $11 million contract. He needs to become a top-five offensive small forward on both sides of the ball. He can’t be LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but he can be Paul Pierce.
This will be the most important year of Deng’s career, and if he can fill that role and prove himself, the Bulls will have to keep him. If not, though, one of the most successful Bulls since Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan may be in his second-to-last season with the Bulls.