CHICAGO -- Luol Deng has been such an integral part of the Chicago Bulls' success over the past three seasons under Tom Thibodeau that the idea of Deng playing somewhere else will make the veteran coach cringe. But it's a notion that Thibodeau should at least consider as the Bulls go about trying to upgrade their roster over the summer, and it's the single biggest non-Derrick Rose question hovering over the Bulls as they head into the offseason.
Should Deng be dealt?
The idea of trading Deng would have seemed preposterous just a few months ago, but then Deng got injured and Jimmy Butler stepped in to fill his role. In many ways, Butler is a Deng clone -- just younger. Butler is a solid defender who has the ability to play heavy minutes night after night and his offense continues to get better over time. Obviously, Deng is a two-time All-Star and his offensive game is much more polished than Butler's, but Deng is 28 years old, he's dealt with several major health scares recently and he may have to have surgery to fix his ailing wrist this summer. Most importantly, Deng is heading into the final year of his deal worth more than $13 million. Butler will be heading into the third year of a team-friendly rookie contract that has him locked up for a couple of more years for a fraction of Deng's salary. He is the perfect type of player to build around because he is young, cheap and only getting better.
The reality for the Bulls is that because of those factors, Butler may actually have more trade value than Deng at the moment. Yes, Deng's deal is expiring at the end of next year which would free up cap space for any team that acquires him, but why would a team give up a young asset and/or draft picks for a veteran player who could walk at the end of the year? Therein lies the rub for both the Bulls and any team interested in acquiring Deng. The veteran forward has proven to be an All-Star-caliber player in this league, but he is likely going to have to take a pay cut after his current deal ends. Just how much of a cut will go a long way toward determining whether Deng will be in Chicago in the future. If the Bulls come to Deng this summer and offer him an extension at a reduced rate, and he says no, then he will make the decision easier for them.
What compounds the issue for the Bulls is that they would like to leave themselves enough room next summer to add a max or near-max player in free agency or via a trade. If they use the amnesty provision on the final year of Carlos Boozer's deal and Deng's contract comes off the books, that would give them that would give them about $30 million in cap space. But if you factor in Deng's possible extension, the odds of landing a major star take a hit since Deng's new deal would eat up some of that space. That's why the decision on what to do with Deng is even more important. He's a key piece to the Bulls' core but it's a core that has proven to be just good enough to get beat by the Miami Heat.
Obviously, having Rose back and having Deng and Kirk Hinrich healthy may have changed things. But at this point in his career, Deng is what he is. He is a system player who does a lot of different things very well but he's not a consistent second scoring option who is capable of finding his own shot. The issue for the Bulls is that he is being paid like one. Will Butler ever turn into that type of player? It's too early to tell right now at this point in his career, but the Bulls are going to enjoy the process of figuring that out since they only owe him a little more than $3 million over the next two years as they try to hammer out an extension.
While the trade talk swirls this summer, the truth for the Bulls is that they don't want to move Deng or Butler. It would be interesting to see how well a starting five of Rose, Butler, Deng, Boozer and Joakim Noah could perform together. But as GM Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson look into the future, they may decide they have to make a move if Deng doesn't want to sign a cheaper extension. The only way Butler goes anywhere this summer is if he's included in a deal for another star. Kevin Love is a player the Bulls will have conversations about but it seems unlikely the Minnesota Timberwolves and new front office head Flip Saunders would want to deal him right now. If they do, the Bulls will be listening.
In the meantime, the only untouchable on the roster continues to be Rose. Everyone else is up for debate -- but internally the Bulls must consider a question that Thibodeau would never want to think about. Are the Bulls better off getting another asset for Deng now rather than letting him potentially walk next summer and seeing him go for nothing?