Well, that trade never went down. The Golden State Warriors selected Barnes and then nearly stormed their way into the Western Conference finals.
Meanwhile, Deng contracted a troubling illness during the playoffs that necessitated a test for viral meningitis, keeping him out of Chicago's final seven postseason games. That's just the sort of season it was for Chicago.
But after winning a Game 7 on the road against the Brooklyn Nets and then taking Game 1 from the Miami Heat in South Beach—and doing it all without the talents of Derrick Rose—the Bulls proved they have the core to contend in the East, they just need to round it out properly.
And because of their astronomical payroll, that may mean identifying the juiciest trade chip to address their needs. This summer, the Bulls will have the 20th and 49th picks in the draft, but those seem unlikely to be sufficient to fill the holes at shooting guard and backup center. Plus, coach Tom Thibodeau isn't fond of relying on rookies.
And that's why the Bulls have to trade Luol Deng.
His Apparent Value
This past season, Deng posted creditable averages of 13.8 points, 7.6 boards and 3.8 dimes per game. He also led the NBA in minutes for the second consecutive year, logging 38.7 minutes per game as he powered the Bulls in Rose’s absence.
Deng actually averaged even more minutes in 2010-11 (39.1 per game), but Monta Ellis edged him for the omnipresence honor.
The British citizen has two All-Star appearances to his credit in his nine-year career, and both have come in the past two seasons. But like an overused relief pitcher, will that over-reliance on one player begin to take its toll?
Drafted by the Phoenix Suns seventh overall in 2004, Deng has already logged nearly 24,000 minutes in his career including the postseason. Even at the tender age of 28, it seems a distinct possibility that Deng could start breaking down at any time.
If you're inclined to believe advanced statistics, then Luol Deng was nothing special in the 2012-13 season. He ranked 23rd among small forwards in player efficiency rating, just behind teammate Jimmy Butler and just ahead of the poor-shooting Corey Brewer (via ESPN).
Nevertheless, he represented his conference as an All-Star, and his defensive prowess elevates him above many others at the position.
There’s no denying Deng’s toughness however. He tried to play on the heels of a “botched spinal tap” during the playoffs, and he also revealed that he played through a broken thumb earlier in the season (per Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports). Now it seems that he’s been battling a chronic wrist injury as well.
But the Bulls were left hopelessly short-handed in the playoffs, especially after their triple-OT marathon win against Brooklyn.
Deng’s solid defense and efficient shooting (46 percent from the field and 77 percent from the line this year) make him an alluring target for teams in need of frontcourt help, although the Bulls have shown no indication that such a deal is on the cards.
The Insurance Policy
Because of the emergence of Jimmy Butler, the Bulls can afford to ship off one of their two talented (and highly paid) forwards if it means giving them some flexibility with the salary cap.
Carlos Boozer’s contract is much more cumbersome ($15.3 million next season and $16.8 million in 2014-15, per HOOPSWORLD), which has caused rampant speculation about Chicago possibly exercising the amnesty clause on him.
If at all, that would likely take place after the 2013-14 season, as the Booze Cruise proved a potent force this year (16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game), though he was occasionally prone to erratic defense.
And his scoring touch deserted him when it mattered most. In Games 1, 2 and 4 against the Miami Heat, Boozer shot 9-of-34 from the field. Still, the Bulls figure to stand pat with him through this season as they can always use the amnesty clause next summer instead.
Deng is owed $14.3 million next season, after which he is set to become a free agent. If they don’t plan on re-signing him, it makes sense to shop such an asset with an expiring contract in this offseason, or look to get something at the trade deadline.
A sign-and-trade scenario is unlikely, as the Bulls will probably be above the cap apron unless they shift some salary elsewhere.
Jimmy Butler is an incredible value at less than $1.2 million next year with a very affordable team option in 2014-15. Undoubtedly, the Bulls want to employ the affordable services of Butler at the 3 and look to use the money they would pay Deng on a true starting 2-guard.
And because of the man they call Jimmy Buckets, the return yielded from trading Deng is more valuable to Chicago than the quality that Deng provides.
The Tax Man
Chicago royally botched the salary cap under the new CBA.
Somehow, Taj Gibson's salary explodes after sitting at just $2.2 million last season. Now Gibson is owed $33 million over the next four seasons, including the guts of $8 million next season. I’ll wait for the Bulls fans to stop screaming.
Next year, Chicago already owes $73 million in guaranteed money to eight players, $71 million of which will go to six players. Given the more stringent luxury tax under the new CBA (and the repeater tax), it’s high time for the Bulls to shed some salary.
Of course, Derrick Rose owns the largest contract on the team, but he's also the one that thwarted LeBron James' chance at five consecutive MVP awards. And even with the impending return of Rose, the Bulls undeniably need help in their backcourt. Nate Robinson played some incredible basketball during the 2013 playoffs, but Chicago couldn’t muster the mammoth effort required to beat the Miami Heat.
Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich both proved more than capable at times, with the former hitting numerous clutch shots and the latter providing pesky defense with high basketball IQ. But neither of them bring sufficient consistency on offense to make the Bulls true contenders.
At any rate, Robinson and Belinelli seem likely to sign elsewhere as free agents, though Hinrich is on board for one more season at $4 million. Unfortunately for Chicago, Hinrich shot an abysmal 37.7 percent from the field last season, the lowest mark of his career.
Tom Thibodeau had better get a shooting coach over to Hinrich's house, and the front office had better get looking for a competent shooter on the perimeter.
But what the Bulls really need to target is greater depth behind the front line at the center position. Nazr Mohammed provided little support for the almost-endless motor of Joakim Noah.
A proper backup pivot behind him would both increase his value to the team and prolong his prowess in the league, as Noah tallied 36.8 minutes per game this past season, by far the highest total of his career.
Kevin Love seems to be the dream acquisition for Chicago (at least according to Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com), which would make them the most romantic team in the league with a D-Rose and a K-Love.
Bill Simmons suggested a trade of Deng or Boozer, plus Butler, that Charlotte Bobcats’ pick and the rights to Nikola Mirotic for Love (via Grantland). Yowzer! Perhaps Simmons would do anything for Love, but I wouldn't do that. By the way for those hoping for a Mirotic sighting in Chicago, he'll be in Spain for at least another year (per Aggrey Sam of CSNChicago.com).
But short of the dream acquisition of double-doubles maven Kevin Love, what would their options be?
It seems likely that they will have to grin and bear out the next two seasons with Boozer, as he’s just not quite rusty enough to fully justify using the amnesty clause and he's essentially unmovable because of his bloated contract.
And that's where Deng carries more value. If they can retain Butler in a trade for Kevin Love involving some draft picks and the rights to a guy who isn't playing anyway, they have to send Deng packing. Ideally, they would also get a potent shooter off the bench, like an Alexey Shved.
Chicago has to go with their gut. Try to trade Deng for comparable value, and fall back on a deadline deal if nothing good presents itself in the offseason.
Deng has played very well for the Bulls, and that's precisely why he's so prized around the league. If a credible trade presents itself which provides a modicum of cap room and approximate value in return, the Bulls have to bite.