The National Guard has been summoned for extra Kleenex duty in the Midwest. Derrick Rose is out for the year yet again—he’ll have played just 10 games over two seasons—and the Chicago Bulls' fanbase is devastated anew.
It's also talking up a storm about the tough roster decisions the team’s front office is suddenly facing.
None is tougher than the question of what to do with the Bulls' most tenured player, Luol Deng. He’s playing in the final year of his contract and it’s widely known that he and the Bulls broke off talks about an extension in the offseason because Deng was asking for more than they were willing to give.
With the NBA’s severe new salary-cap structure, it’s hard to argue Deng is worth the $12 million per year that one rival executive told CSNChicago.com he should be expected to receive as an unrestricted free agent.
Going further into the luxury tax is not something Bulls top shareholder Jerry Reinsdorf is likely to sign off on—he’d only do that for his precious Chicago White Sox.
This is especially true when considering that Deng will be 29 going into next season and has already played a staggering 628 games over his 10-year career, averaging 35.9 minutes per contest. How hard will he be able to play in the third year of his new contract?
The situation with Deng puts Bulls fans in an icky place—most love the Sudan native and Duke alumn for the staunch, proud service he’s consistently given his team and there are only a handful of starters in the league with more balanced skill sets.
But to win a championship under the umbrella of the new CBA, and with an ownership unwilling to commit more money, it will take some very cold calculations.
The Bulls would be wise to move Deng this season. Sending away one of coach Tom Thibodeau’s best and favorite players in the midst of a rough season may risk angering him—the team’s most valuable asset, at this point—but in time Thibodeau will see the benefit of the action.
In terms of quality of play, the Bulls are unlikely to get more than 50 cents on the dollar for Deng, as he’s able to walk away from whatever team he’s dealt to this season once the summer comes.
In terms of assets, however, there are front offices every year that get sucked into the season’s crescendo toward the playoffs and gamble away their future for some stopgap talent.
It will take a couple of more months to identify which teams on the fence between increased contention and taking a step backwards for tomorrow decide to go all in on this year. It’s one of those outfits that’s likeliest to offer the most for Deng.
And what about standing pat, damning all of the doubters by staying faithful to Deng and the rest of the current team?
Belief in that front is a slippery slope, as even last year’s Bulls sans Rose had Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, two score-first players who were able to help push the team past the Brooklyn Nets and into the second round of the playoffs—beyond expectations.
This year’s Bulls are built around Rose, and tragically lacking in firepower without him. It’s almost impossible to envision as good of a 2013-14 campaign in his absence.
Of course, the Eastern Conference is very, very bad this year, so the Bulls could advance just as far given the weakness of the opposition. However, they’ll inevitably lose to the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers without their superstar, and what’s the value in being a big fish in a small pond, in temporary glory?
Chicago fans want much more than that.
The Bulls have to build for the future, whether that means 2014-15 or beyond. Deng won’t be part of that future, as the team has made its interest in bringing over Spanish phenom Nikola Mirotic pretty plain—the 22-year-old is currently dominating Euroleague and will demand a hefty salary from the Bulls in order to leave for the NBA.
Perhaps you’ve heard that basketball is an international game now, that there’s also money in balling overseas these days. If the money is there for Deng, it will only be because the team whiffed on its rights to Mirotic.
Deng’s position is a telling illustration of the new NBA, in which players are more commodified than ever—even his biggest fans are now talking about him like he’s a trading card, his life utterly subject to uprooting in the face of a team upgrade.
It’s only such callousness that gives Bulls fans respite in these most trying of times. Basketball is in the blind spot for this season—it’s time to rearrange the squad with some Moneyball.
That means putting Deng in the past too.