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Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Parting ways with Deng may be best

By Nick Friedell

Luol Deng
Considering his health concerns and age, Luol Deng's value may be best as trade bait.


CHICAGO -- What should the Chicago Bulls do with Luol Deng?

It's the biggest non-Derrick Rose question that continues to hover over this franchise. Yahoo! Sports recently reported that Deng's representatives had started talking to the Bulls about a possible extension, and since that time it seems as if Deng's future in Chicago has divided the team's fan base more than any other non-Rose topic. There are three choices as it pertains to how fans feel regarding Deng.

1) Keep him at any cost and re-sign him.
2) Trade him and get back whatever you can.
3) Let him play out his contract and see what happens.

It's a tricky situation for the organization given that Deng is a two-time All-Star and one of the most respected players in the locker room. He is one of Tom Thibodeau's favorite players and fits nicely into Thibodeau's schemes on both ends of the floor. Deng has done everything for the Bulls since Thibodeau became the coach three years ago and become a league leader in minutes playing almost 40 every night. Bulls GM Gar Forman has repeatedly talked about how important Deng is to the core of the Bulls but he has not come out publicly and stated that the Bulls would do everything in their power to bring Deng back and keep him as a core piece of the team. Forman, like the rest of the fan base, wants to know what kind of price range Deng is looking for in his new deal.

The reality is that Deng is likely going to want something close to what he is scheduled to make this season -- which is over $14 million.
Unless Deng is willing to take a significant hometown discount, and there's been no indication about that to this point, I don't think there's any question as to what the Bulls should do -- either trade him or let him go next summer.

There is a feeling among many within the organization that this team, the way it's currently constructed, still has a chance to win a championship next season. The thinking is that since Deng doesn't nearly have as much trade value as he had in previous years, why not just give it one more run and see what can happen with a core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Deng?

The issue becomes much more complicated if the Bulls don't win, though. Now what?

Given the Bulls' salary cap situation, it's a near certainty they will amnesty the final year of Carlos Boozer's deal worth nearly $17 million. With Deng's $14 million coming off the books along with Kirk Hinrich's $4 million, the Bulls are expected to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $16-17 million depending on how the final numbers shake out now that Mike Dunleavy is in the fold for the next couple seasons at $3 million a year.

So the real question for the Bulls becomes, if a team with Deng as a focal point still isn't good enough, is it worth it to bring him back for three or four years and give up a huge chunk of the cap space you've spent several years to build?

The answer, despite all the good things Deng has done in Chicago, should be no.

Jimmy Butler took solid steps in his progression last season and could easily shift into playing the small forward spot like Deng. Is he a future All-Star? It's too early to tell at this point, but the drop off between Butler and Deng would not be steep -- plus the fact that Butler is still on a rookie deal, and five years younger, would allow the Bulls to go after a scoring two-guard to pair with Rose.

Supporters of Deng will say that there aren't going to be a lot of options for the Bulls to sign next summer -- especially given that the Bulls don't even have enough space right now to offer a full max contract. A quick look at some of the potential choices shows that Forman could struggle to find the missing piece:

List of possible unrestricted free agents:

Kobe Bryant -- Would he really leave LA? Very doubtful.
LeBron James -- Has an option to get out of deal. Why would he come to Chicago after already saying no in 2010?
Dwyane Wade -- Also has an option to get out of deal. Appears to be on downside of his career because of knee problems.
Chris Bosh -- Hasn't flourished in Miami and also appears to be on downside of career.
Paul Pierce -- Intriguing possibility but he'll be 37 when 2014-15 season starts. Is he really the answer at that point in his career?
Dirk Nowitzki -- Does anyone really believe he will leave Dallas?
Vince Carter -- If this were Carter from his Toronto days that would be one thing, but he'll be 37 in 2014-15.
Danny Granger -- Another intriguing choice if he will take a pay cut, but he missed almost all of last year because of knee problems.
Zach Randolph -- Has a player option for 2014-15. If he opted out of deal he would fill Boozer's role nicely but would it be enough?
Ray Allen -- The long range shooter the Bulls would love to have but he'll be 39 next summer. How much longer does he want to play?
Carmelo Anthony -- He can get out of his deal but would he really take a pay cut and leave New York? Doubtful.

Even if there aren't many viable options on that list, the problem with signing Deng is that it takes them out of contention from pursuing almost every name, aside from maybe Carter and Allen assuming both would play for close to the veteran's minimum for one more chance at a ring. If Deng ends up signing for $12 million a year the Bulls would only have $4-5 million left to fill out the rest of their roster. The Bulls would love for Nikola Mirotic to come over from Europe next summer but they may not be left with enough money to sign him depending on how the Deng negotiations shake out.

Aside from the money, there's also the issue of durability. Deng has held up well under Thibodeau aside from the health issues that forced him to miss the last half of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. He's consistently played through pain and changed the perception in Chicago early in his career that he was 'soft.' But how much longer is his body going to hold up? Deng admitted after his spinal tap that he had been playing with a fractured thumb all season on top of the torn ligament in his wrist that he continues to play with. Deng is heading into his 10th season in the league and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which he can continue to stay healthy and perform at the same level while playing 40 minutes a night for 82 games a year over the next four seasons.

The Bulls flirted with the idea of dealing Deng before the draft but they couldn't get what they wanted in return. Now they head into a season in which they have to make one of the toughest decisions of their future regarding one of the most respected players in the organization. If the Bulls don't deal Deng they will be paying a heftier luxury tax bill at the end of the season and will be banking on him staying healthy in hopes of winning a title. If they trade Deng it will be seen as an admission that this team, as constructed, can't win it all this year and they can save some money moving forward, but it would anger and already frustrated fan base.

Neither of these choices would be as much of a gamble as re-signing Deng and keeping him long-term would be. Even if the Bulls have to once again watch as one of their former draft picks walks away for nothing, it would still be better than investing millions into a plan that has already proven it's not good enough to win it all. Obviously, it's not Deng's fault the Bulls haven't been able to take the next step in their evolution as a group -- but if this team can't win with a healthy Rose next season, and I don't believe they can, then it's time to shake things up. Either way, the Bulls would be better served to spend their money elsewhere. Even if they don't land a marquee free agent to play with Rose, at least they would bring Mirotic over and invest in younger, cheaper players who have the ability to turn into the right fit over time. Deng is the type of player who can help a team win a championship, but at this price, and at his age, the Bulls would be wise bring someone else in and wish Deng well as he heads out the door.