Bulls, Deng face uncertain future

June, 25, 2012
6/25/12
12:30
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Anyone who has followed Luol Deng and the Chicago Bulls in the past six months could have told you this was coming. It was inevitable.

[+] EnlargeLuol Deng
Paul Abell/US PresswireLuol Deng's decision to play through the pain of his wrist injury could have a lasting impact for the 2012-13 season.
From the moment Deng tore a ligament in his wrist in late January, he held to the same belief. He was going to put off surgery to help the Bulls try to win a title and, no matter what happened, he was going to play for Team Great Britain in the Olympics this summer. No matter how many different ways Deng was asked, his answer was always the same: He was “definitely” playing.

Playing in the London Olympics meant a little more to Deng because of the way the country embraced he and his family when they fled their native Sudan first to Egypt and then to England. Deng, who became a British citizen in 2006, badly wanted to represent the country on the world's biggest sporting stage.

From the outset, Bulls management always held the view that it would support Deng in his decision, but privately many in the organization wanted him to have the surgery as soon as the injury happened. The thinking was that Deng would have the surgery, be out three to four months, and then possibly come back for the playoffs. Either way, he would be ready to go for the Olympics and the 2012-13 season.

Deng, who endured the same injury on his right wrist during his rookie year, discussed the situation with the same doctor who performed that surgery and decided to put it off. He wanted to help the Bulls win a championship. While the Bulls, specifically coach Tom Thibodeau, were proud of the fact that Deng wanted to play through the pain, the cloud of uncertainty hung over him and the team throughout the rest of the season.


Nobody wanted to discuss the possibility that Deng would be out for a large chunk of next season if he insisted on playing in the Olympics. Deng spent the year brushing off questions about his wrist, continuing to say that he would be fine and he would just deal with the pain. Thibodeau maintained the Bulls would meet with Deng after the season and continued to play him heavy minutes because he was convinced that Deng couldn't do any more damage to the wrist.

Bulls GM Gar Forman repeatedly stated that he would discuss all the possibilities with Deng after the year as well. But Deng never swayed from wanting to play in the Games. His stance clearly frustrated Bulls personnel who were on the hook for two more years and almost $28 million at the end of Deng's contract. Deng admitted to reporters on Sunday the same thing Bulls fans have known for months: The Bulls wanted him to have the surgery and skip the Olympics.

"I wouldn't want me to play (in the Olympics) either," Deng said, during a Team Great Britain training session. "Pax is an athlete and, as an athlete who used to play, Pax understands me wanting to play. But as a GM that's his job to try and get the team healthy and get the team ready for next year. I understand both sides to it."

That doesn't mean he's changing his mind.

Deng can talk all he wants about how he may not have to undergo the surgery, a message both he and the front office have mentioned numerous times in the past few months. But after watching Deng play all season it's hard to believe that would even be a possibility. His wrist bothered him throughout the season and hampered his play at times.

Obviously, Deng's injury was bad luck. Same goes for Derrick Rose's knee injury. If Rose didn’t get hurt, maybe there's not as much pressure from the organization on Deng to have the surgery now. But the reality is that Deng's injury only intensifies all the questions surrounding the Bulls this summer. Aside from health, the biggest one is how can the Bulls contend this year without their two best players for large chunks of the season?

Here's the hard truth: They can't.

The Bulls will be better than most think because the Eastern Conference is not that deep, and Thibodeau will not allow his team to fold in the face of adversity. But to use a phrase from Thibodeau, they don't have enough to win with this season. Even at full strength, there were still serious doubts as to whether the Bulls could beat the Miami Heat in a seven-game series. But now without Rose, and likely Deng, not to mention the impending departures of Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson because of luxury cap concerns, the Bulls are in the type of basketball hell most teams dread.

What do you do if you're Forman and you don't have money to work with on a team that is already dealing with health concerns?

The answer, in the short term, is that you at least discuss potential deals that would give your team cap flexibility. The problem for the Bulls is that if you go off the assumption that they want to re-sign Omer Asik (which they do) and work out an extension with Taj Gibson (which they do) the only two tangible assets at the moment are Deng and Joakim Noah. Forman can talk about the Charlotte draft pick and the potential arrival of Nikola Mirotic all he wants, but the truth is that the only two pieces the Bulls have to offer at the moment are Deng and Noah.

Deng admitted as much on Sunday regarding the rumors that the Golden State Warriors are trying to work out a deal for him.

"I believe there is always to some extent truth behind rumors," Deng said. "But as an athlete, if you get caught up in them, you are really wasting your time because it's not something you can control ... If it's not true, a GM could always come out and say it's not true. But if a GM doesn't come out and say it, there are probably talks. And there should be. If I was a GM I would be shopping players around, too. I've got to show that I'm doing something."

According to a tweet by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on Monday morning, the Bulls have privately assured Deng that there is “no chance” they will trade him to the Warriors.

Forman has always been coy regarding any potential moves, so don't look for a statement from him regarding an undying love toward Deng any time soon. He has been around the game long enough to know that he must do anything he can to make his team better. But that's the part of any potential Deng deal that doesn't make sense, at least from a basketball perspective. Trading away Deng (which is still hard to believe in one regard given his potential surgery and the fact he would be out three to four months no matter where he goes) doesn't add up except from a financial perspective. No matter who the Bulls got in return for Deng, it's hard to believe they would be able to replace all the things Deng does for the team. He is a Thibodeau favorite, after all, and any notion that the Bulls are shopping Deng because of his decision to push back surgery is ridiculous. Thibodeau loves him.

Trading away Deng wouldn't just represent part of a financial plan, though. It would be an acknowledgement from the front office that the Bulls, as constructed, simply aren't good enough to win a title right now. It would be a signal to fans to sleepwalk through another season or two before the Bulls can amnesty Carlos Boozer's contract and make another major run at a new crop of free agents, much the same way they tried and failed to land LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh during the summer of 2010. Fans will gripe about Jerry Reinsdorf's reluctance to go into the luxury tax, but why go into the tax if you don't feel like you're good enough to win?

The Bulls would never say this publicly, of course. They'll sell fans on the fact that Rose will continue to get healthy, and they'll make another run at a title when he comes back on the floor. Fans will continue to fill up the United Center, and the Bulls will continue to make money. But will they be any closer to a title in the next year or two? Probably not. Until the Bulls get another star to play alongside Rose, their hopes of hoisting the golden trophy at the end of the season are slim. Until they find a way to free up some money to attract such a star, they'll continue to reside in the grey zone that no executive wants to think about.

The odds that the Bulls actually decide to move Deng before next season are still relatively slim, but the fact that all these rumors continue to float around send an undeniable message to fans heading into the upcoming season. It's a message filled with uncertainty about the future.

Nick Friedell | email

Chicago Bulls beat reporter
Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

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