As long as I can remember, I have been a diehard NBA fan. As a kid, I wanted to play in the league, no different than any other 5 or 10 year-old hitting the game-winning jumper on their Little Tikes basement basketball hoop. But like 99 percent of the kids with that wish, I realized I didn’t have the natural ability. So as I grew older, and even up until the last couple of years, I dreamed of a job in an NBA front office, working my way up to general manager and putting together an unforgettable dynasty.
But when I look at the current situation of my favorite team, the Chicago Bulls, I realize, maybe I am smart enough. Maybe I could work my way up. But I don’t think I would have the fortitude to make the hard choices as a general manager; choices like the one soon facing Bulls management. Nonetheless, it wont hurt to put myself in the GM’s chair.
Luol Deng has been the most consistent and trustworthy player for the Bulls over the last three seasons. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah may be more talented, but both have missed significant time due to injuries. Deng has given coach Tom Thibodeau insane minutes, and he does it on both ends, every night. He guards the opponent’s best perimeter player, and then comes back down court and is in constant motion, trying to get open for a jumper or a back-cut for a team that’s often desperate for easy offense.
He plays through injuries, forgoing wrist surgery to repair damaged wrist ligaments for almost two seasons now. This past year, with Rose out for the whole season, he had to try and take on a greater scoring/ball-handling load, the toll of which was visible by the end of the season. There are no nights off for Luol Deng during the season. You can blame Thibodeau for that if you want to, but the fact remains that Deng has given the Bulls everything they could ask for.
On the other hand, the Bulls must look long and hard and determine if it is worth to keep Deng around at a high number. He will be paid $14 million next season, the final season of his contract. This is too much for a guy who may be breaking down physically under heavy minutes and is limited in his ability as a scorer. Deng shot just 42% the last two seasons, after being in the 45-50% range up until then. He had his lowest 3-point percentage, 32%, since his third season in the NBA. He has played right about 39 minutes per game the last three seasons under Thibodeau, an extreme regular season number. Bulls fans will nod in agreement when I say that Deng has been left in games that were well past the blowout stage many, many times.
Despite that, coming off of two All-Star seasons, Deng will probably be asking a pretty high price on his new contract. Jimmy Butler makes much less, is younger, and with improvement could effectively replace what Deng gives the Bulls. If Butler can replace Deng at a much lower number, it may be wise to free up Deng’s money to help out elsewhere on the roster.
This upcoming season, and the following offseason, will prove to be pivotal in the Bulls’ championship hopes. If Deng is salary-dumped or allowed to walk as a free agent, and Carlos Boozer is amnestied to avoid his huge cap hit, then the Bulls could have around $15 million (a ballpark number from estimates I have seen) in cap room to build around Rose, Noah, Butler, Taj Gibson, and hopefully European stud forward Nikola Mirotic, currently playing extremely well in Spain. The Bulls hold the rights to Mirotic, and will need to have a good chunk of change available to sign him away from Real Madrid.
And this is where the Bulls decision makers must make the tough choice. This current group, when healthy, was clearly one of the two or three best teams in the NBA, and was clearly a championship contender. Injuries robbed the Bulls of getting a fair shot at a title. Now Gar Forman and John Paxson must decide if this group, with Rose’s knee and Boozer’s decline and Deng’s everything, can still compete at that level.
They could try and trade Deng next season for assets. A two-time All-Star forward should be a nice trade chip. But would a team give up valuable pieces for a player who may walk at the end of the season, or demand a high price tag that he may not be worth?
This decision could turn out so many ways for Chicago. They could free up money and land a big star, or flop with overpaid players. They could keep the team together and have a return to elite form, or see the team hit its ceiling and again fail to win the East.
If it were my choice, I would shop Deng for valuable assets. If nothing arises, let him walk at the end of the season, unless he takes a big hometown discount (unlikely). This Bulls team was elite for the last few years, but I think it has topped out. Amnesty Boozer, and arm yourself with the hopes that Rose, Noah, Thibodeau, the city of Chicago, and cap space will be enough to attract another star, through free agency or using the cap space to absorb a star player’s salary. Teams with multiple stars have always won NBA titles. The Bulls have Rose, now they have to find another.
This is the Bulls’ decision, though, not mine. There are multiple paths to choose, and each path has multiple outcomes. Whichever way the Bulls choose, it will be a gamble. And I’m pretty relieved it’s not my own chips on the table.