Why Chicago Bulls Can't Afford to Play Dangerous Game with Luol Deng

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Why Chicago Bulls Can't Afford to Play Dangerous Game with Luol Deng
USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls said "toe-MAY-toe," Luol Deng said "toe-MAH-toe," so they both called the whole thing off.

Or, at least, that's how I imagined their ill-fated negotiations played out over the course of the summer.

According to multiple reports, the Bulls have ceased discussions with Deng's camp over a possible contract extension for the two-time NBA All-Star and aren't likely to revisit those talks before the 2013-14 season tips off.

In effect, that means that Deng will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, 2014. Herb Rudoy, Deng's agent, recently told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times that his client has no desire to concern himself with contract talks once he and the Bulls have begun the business of competing for a championship.

Chicago certainly has its reasons, both fiscal and managerial, for passing on Deng in the interim (which we'll get to in a bit). But treating a player of Lu's stature and tenure within the organization as the Bulls have could send shockwaves through the United Center that could tear apart a budding title contender.

Deng, who's entering his 10th season as a pro, has spent his entire NBA career with the Bulls.

They traded up to the seventh pick in the 2004 NBA draft to nab the South Sudan native out of Duke. For nearly a decade, they've watched (and helped) Deng blossom into a versatile offensive threat, an All-Defensive performer, and the heart and soul of a franchise that's seen good times and bad on his watch.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ties as tight as those that bind Deng to the Bulls don't sever easily or without repercussion.

Lu has been an important part of this particular Chicago squad, which has high hopes for the coming year now that Derrick Rose is due back from an 18-month injury layaway. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has often referred to Deng as "the glue" of the team, telling Chicago Sun-Times toward the end of the 2012-13 season:

You need rebounding, he’ll give you rebounding. 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.

Thibs clearly understands and appreciates all that Deng does on the court, night in and night out. Deng's led the league in minutes per game in each of the past two seasons—and checked in fourth overall in that regard in 2010-11, Thibodeau's first year on the job—despite suffering through a wrist injury for which he declined to have reparative surgery.

That sort of grit and toughness has come to define Thibs' Bulls. It's no wonder, then, that Thibodeau feels so strongly about having Deng, who exemplifies all that the coach preaches, on his side.

Perhaps, even strongly enough to further strain the already tenuous relationship between Thibs and Chicago's front office.

The two sides have had their disputes about personnel decisions in the past, though any further disagreements may well bring an added tinge of danger in light of the departure of Ron Adams. A defensive guru by trade, Adams was Thibs' lead assistant and one of his closest confidants in Chicago.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Adams was one of Tom Thibodeau's most trusted associates in Chicago.

That is, until Bulls general manager Gar Forman decided to part ways with Adams this summer. Adams has since joined Brad Stevens' staff with the Boston Celtics.

Watching Deng walk could be yet another straw thrown atop the back of an already overburdened metaphorical camel in the Windy City.

Any Deng-related drama would seem to do anything but smooth things over between Chicago and its coach, who left the Bulls waiting on pins and needles for nearly the entire 2012-13 season before finally putting pen to paper on a four-year, $17.5 million extension this past April.

Making Deng wait to decide his future could have its own deleterious effects on the relationship between player and organization. According to KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Deng had harbored some resentment toward the Bulls over the way they handled his illness during the playoffs and the botched spinal tap thereafter.

Deng, though, was careful not to criticize the team publicly, telling Pawel Weszka of NBA Africa this past July:

The end of the season was disappointing. I worked hard all season, played in the All-Star, and wanted to take the team as far as possible in the playoffs. But then, when I got sick, I think that we could have handled the situation better. Obviously there are some things that you can’t handle. You can’t really handle getting sick, being taken to the ER or going to the hospital. I got the spinal tap and that’s where it went all wrong. My body didn’t react well to the spinal tap, I had some serious side effects that not only didn’t allow me to play basketball, but really put my life in danger.

It’s something that I wouldn’t want anyone to go through, but when I went through it, I think that basketball became second – especially that because what I went through health wise, my family was very worried. I never want to experience something like that again.

Luol Deng watches from his hospital bed as the Bulls beat the Heat in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

This, along with the Bulls' refusal to talk specifics on a new contract (per the Chicago Tribune), might be enough to dampen the spirits of some NBA players and, in turn, affect the team's performance in the immediate term.

But Deng, by all accounts, is a pro's pro and wouldn't allow such disagreements and disappointments to distract him from the task of winning basketball games. As a source close to the talks told Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago:

Our goal was to get an extension done this summer. If that’s not what they want to do, so be it.

We’re not upset, Luol isn’t upset. We’re just looking forward to this season and next summer.

Forman, for his part, had expressed skepticism about Deng garnering an extension this summer, albeit while maintaining his desire to keep Lu in the Windy City over the long haul.

He and the Bulls aren't without cause for slow-playing their way through Lu's situation, either.

For one, the Bulls are already set to dig deep into the luxury tax at the end of this season after doing so for the first time in franchise history in 2012-13. Locking in Deng's salary now would all but ensure that Chicago extends its streak of luxury taxation to three years in 2014-15. That would put the Bulls in line for the dreaded "repeater tax" if their salary climbs back over the luxury threshold in 2015-16.

Unless, of course, the front office (finally) decides to exercise its amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer after this season. Doing so would wipe Boozer's $16.8 million salary from the official books used to calculate luxury tax implications, though Chicago would still be on the hook for the money. Yet so far, the powers-that-be at the United Center have been reluctant to pay someone to not play for the team.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

There's already been some speculation that the Bulls could be in the market for a big-name free agent addition (i.e. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay, etc.) if they were to part ways with Deng and Boozer.

The thought of luring a superstar like LeBron or 'Melo to Chicago, while obviously enticing to Bulls fans, would seem little more than a pipe dream at this point, for a number of reasons:

1. At this point, the odds of the aforementioned superstars opting out of their current contracts to pursue opportunities with other teams rest somewhere between "slim" and "none." Anthony is soaking up the spotlight for his hometown New York Knicks, while the Miami Heat's Big Three could head into the summer with a three-peat under their belts and their sights set on a historic run at four straight championships.

2. Per ShamSports, the Bulls have already committed nearly $44 million in salary to just five players for 2014-15: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and incoming rookie Tony Snell. That doesn't include Boozer's big chunk of cash, the fourth-year option on Jimmy Butler's rookie contract, or the third year on Marquis Teague's.

Should the league's salary cap hover under $60 million ($58.679 million for 2013-14, per NBA.com), the Bulls would essentially have to ask whatever superstar is on the market to take a significant pay cut just to play in Chicago next to Derrick Rose.

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3. This is all before taking into consideration the not-so-small matter of Deng's cap hold, which is expected to be upwards of $19 million (per Hoopsworld). Thus, if the Bulls want to have any free cap space whatsoever when next summer's mad dash begins, they'll have to renounce their rights to Deng, giving up the possibility of getting something in return for him via sign-and-trade should he choose to play elsewhere.

4. Oh, and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a notorious cheapskate who'd presumably shudder at the thought of shelling out beaucoup bucks in taxes to bring on even one of the best players in the NBA.

That being said, the Bulls could still benefit from letting Deng test the market.

If the free-agency pool does, indeed, flood with top-tier talent, Deng may well have difficulty finding a team flush with cap space that's willing to spend it on a player in his late 20s who's accustomed to pulling in around $13 or $14 million per season.

The new collective bargaining agreement has made teams more cost-conscious than ever before, especially when it comes to paying players who will be exiting their primes as their contracts come to a close.

If the market turns out to be a tough one to navigate, the Bulls could find themselves in prime position to bring back Deng at a discount, especially considering his close connection to the franchise.

Moreover, Chicago shouldn't be all that desperate to retain a player of Deng's size and skill set, not with a younger, cheaper facsimile, in Jimmy Butler, already on the roster.

A big season from Butler, who's set to start at shooting guard next to Derrick Rose in 2013-14—along with encouraging results from Tony Snell, who projects as another athletic, two-way swingman—could be enough to convince the Bulls that they don't need to break the bank to keep a player like Deng.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, these are big gambles for a team on the brink of honest-to-goodness title contention.

As important as it is for the Bulls to plan carefully over the long term, playing with the fire of Luol Deng's future could have serious consequences on the team's promising present. After a season fraught with Derrick Rose-related distractions, the last thing Chicago needs is another campaign marred by behind-the-scenes drama, even less so if said drama involves team leaders like Thibs and Deng.

This isn't to say that the Bulls should drop everything and pay Deng now that they've walked away from the negotiating table. Rather, with Lu's foot now creeping out the door on the way to free agency, it would behoove the Bulls, in their dealings with Deng during the upcoming season and thereafter, to heed a warning like the one once offered by none other than Walter White.

Tread lightly.

 

What do you think the Bulls should do about Lu? Let me know on Twitter!

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