Why Luol Deng Might Be This Summer's Most Important Free Agent

Jim CavanContributor IJuly 1, 2014

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14: Luol Deng #9 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game against the Golden State Warriors on March 14, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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If the NBA were a continent, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be its shifting tectonic plates, a quartet of forces capable of utterly upending the league’s landscape in a matter of seconds and signings.

These are the four players upon which each and every media seismograph will be attached. Even if odds are none of them move an inch.

All the while, one of the league’s foremost two-way players—ignored for much of last season as he passed between a tax-averse contender and a court-staged comedy of errors—stands to be this summer’s real free-agent game-changer.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Luol Deng. You may have heard of him, but you have no idea.

Even before the opening bell was officially rung, at least three teams had expressed interest in speaking with the versatile veteran forward:

A little over an hour later, Deng’s name was being linked to the heaviest hitter yet:

Meanwhile, USA Today’s Sam Amick is reporting that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers could also be hot on Deng’s trail, despite neither team having any cap space to speak of.

It’s not hard to see why; in landing Deng, you’re not only getting a career 16-point-a-game scorer, but one of the league’s rangiest and most dependable perimeter defenders.

That kind of skill set comes at a price—one some of the teams will be either unwilling or unable to pay.

So what exactly is Deng’s market value? One thing’s for certain: It’s not $12 million.

At the same time, it might be safe to assume—based on this interview with the Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson shortly after Deng was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers—that it wouldn’t be too much more than that:

My thing is in the summer, I never came with a number. I heard on the radio that I asked for 15 (million). I would never ask for a number. We came to (general manager) Gar (Forman) last summer and we wanted to sit down and talk. And Gar didn’t want to talk. They felt like they wanted to wait and see how everything goes with Derrick (Rose)…Three days before the trade, Gar called me upstairs and put three years, $30 million on the table. Take it or leave it. No negotiation. I said no and that was it. But 15? That’s the only thing that upset me. I’m not upset with the organization. I want everyone to understand that. If I was a GM, would I make that move? Maybe.

At this point, it seems obvious Deng’s goal isn’t to team up at a discount with one of free agency’s colossal catches; rather, he’d be content getting his just due with a team unlikely to reel in James or Anthony but right on the cusp of contention.

That could put a team like the Dallas Mavericks firmly in the running, assuming they strike out on James and Anthony, each of whom have been squarely on Mark Cuban’s radar, per Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News.

If Dirk Nowitzki is willing to return at a discount (say, something in the neighborhood of $15 million a year), Dallas would still have close to $13 million to spend before cresting the salary cap.

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 18: Monta Ellis #11 of the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks react during a game at American Airlines Center on February 18, 2014 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Whether that would meet Deng’s demand for “fair market value,” it's difficult to say. But with Tyson Chandler back in the fold and Monta Ellis set to return, the Mavs have all the makings of a scary, potentially power-shifting core in waiting.

If he’s looking for the ideal combination of fair pay and a chance at a championship, however, Deng might be wise to look at the team that first dumped him: the Bulls.

As ChicagoNow.com’s Don Ellis reports, the most cap space Chicago could cleave open—after amnestying Carlos Boozer and dumping other roster flotsam—would be around $18 million.

At the moment, that money is being set aside for Carmelo Anthony, with whom the Bulls staged a formal meeting Tuesday afternoon, according to Johnson:

However, should Anthony spurn Chicago for another suitor, Deng would be a logical secondary target—assuming he’s gotten past his one-time team dealing him after he turned down a three-year, $30 million extension, that is.

With a healthy Derrick Rose at the helm and Deng back patrolling the perimeter, the Bulls would undoubtedly enter the 2014-15 campaign as a top-tier team in the East, a position from which they were temporarily exiled last season.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

And if LeBron, Wade and Bosh end up going their separate ways, leaving Miami in a lurch? Chicago’s prospects could prove even brighter.

Of all his potential suitors, the Lakers—with more cap space than any team but the Miami Heat—could give Deng the biggest possible payday.

However, as Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta recently pointed out, the mix of potential injury problems and ambiguous conference prospects makes the Lakers a far riskier proposition than Deng might be willing to entertain:

If the Lakers could ink Deng while keeping Gasol and Jordan Hill and have Steve Nash directing the team, they would have a starting five that could compete, provided health isn’t an issue.

Of course, that’s a massive disclaimer considering that none of them has exactly been the poster boy for stability over the last couple of years. That could be a major disincentive for Deng, who has already had his share of heartbreak seeing his superstar leader in Chicago, Derrick Rose, lose three postseasons in a row to injury.

Still, it’s not impossible to see those Lakers—with a healthy Kobe at the fore—making some noise in what once again promises to be a hypercompetitive Western Conference.

Even a team like the Phoenix Suns—though they haven’t been officially linked to him yet—could stand to throw the financial house at Deng, adding him to a 48-win core that includes Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, should the Suns match any offer sheet given to the latter.

Nam Huh/Associated Press

Teams with the means and the need to recruit Deng are everywhere. Moreover, unlike with James and Anthony, the prospects of getting Deng are actually somewhat realistic.

The fact that Deng remains one of the league’s premier defensive antidotes to the almost hegemonic crop of all-world small forwards—James, Anthony and Kevin Durant being the three obvious examples—only makes his free-agency foray all the more crucial.

Just as the addition of Andre Iguodala helped lend the Golden State Warriors immediate defensive credibility, so, too, will Deng’s chosen team be viewed as having taken a sizable step up the contenders’ ranks.

Until their names are scrawled across a bottom line, LeBron and 'Melo are certain—why with all their seismic clout—to quake and sway the free-agency discourse.

Just don’t be surprised if it’s Deng's team that shakes things up the hardest.