Luol Deng is a wanted man.
No, certainly not by law enforcement and not even so much on the NBA’s trade market, as many teams are hesitant to take him on as a half-season rental, especially if the Bulls’ price is a productive young player and a first-round draft pick, as people in the know around the league continue to say. But more significantly, Deng’s prospective suitors are more eager about his impending unrestricted free agency, when they could have a chance to woo him away from the only franchise the two-time All-Star has ever played for in his professional career, signing him free and clear.
For fans in Chicago, it could be hard to fathom, but Deng might be the league’s most coveted and heavily pursued free agent next summer. Miami’s LeBron James, the player widely acknowledged as the best in the game, is expected to opt out of his current contract and re-sign with the Heat, while Carmelo Anthony — one of the purest scorers in the game, though his luster fades with each increasingly ugly Knicks loss — if he doesn’t follow suit and remain in New York, on the off chance he’s open to relocating, would likely only move to the NBA’s second-biggest market, Los Angeles, most observers believe.
Deng, on the other hand, is regarded throughout the league as being wide open, in the wake of not agreeing to — or being offered — a contract extension by the Bulls this past offseason.
Rival teams planning pursuit
His upcoming status has resulted in the likes of the Cavaliers, Mavericks, Lakers, Raptors, Spurs, Grizzlies and Nets, among others, already expressing interest in Deng, according to league sources. It doesn’t hurt that Deng, currently sidelined with a left Achilles’ injury that’s caused him to miss seven games this month, is having another stellar campaign, one of three NBA players to average 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Minnesota’s Kevin Love are the others) and picking up the Bulls’ scoring burden in the wake of Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury.
Though it hasn’t been reflected in his style of play — not a ball-dominant player, he thrives off moving without the ball on offense — Deng doesn’t deny that he’s conscious of the fact that it’s a contract season but claims his approach hasn’t changed.
“If I said I’m not, then I’d be lying. I’m being realistic. It’s not greed, it’s not anything. First of all, the first thing I do when I play this game, is be the best I can be. Money-wise, not money-wise, that’s the best thing I want to be. Playing, the fact that I know it’s my contract year, I have to show people what I can do. It’s not a selfish thing, and it’s not the only reason. If it wasn’t my contract year, I’d still be playing hard to show people,” he explained to CSNChicago.com in a remarkably candid interview. “But it just happens to be that it is the contract year and it goes with it. For me to say it’s not, I don’t think about it, then I’m lying. But it’s not, ‘I have a game,’ I don’t go out there and say, ‘It’s my contract.’ I just go out there and try to be the best that I can. I think it’s more so, coming to the gym at night, working on my game, working with Griff (Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, a former teammate), getting up more shots. That’s me trying to be a better player and knowing that I have to perform. But when it comes to playing time, I just think of winning, that’s it.”
The 28-year-old, a native of South Sudan who spent most of his formative years in London before moving to New Jersey for high school prior to a one-year college stint at Duke, is now in his 10th season with the Bulls, after the franchise selected him seventh overall at 19 in the 2004 NBA Draft. When asked if he’s now prepared for the possibility that he could make a city other than Chicago his home as an adult, the small forward offered more than the typical canned answer players are known to give.
“I have no choice to now, but yeah. If someone comes up to you — just to use an example — and says, ‘Look, I’m going to give you this money right now or you can wait and go through the recruiting process, and you might end up getting the same money.’ You don’t know, you might get more. What do you do? I think, being who I am, I would take what I’ve got right now. I think it’s going to be weird because I haven’t been through it since college and I’ve never been in a place for so long. Just for me, alone, everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve always moved around and always adapted well, but I’ve never lived somewhere more than five years, so this is the first time I’ve ever done that in my life,” Deng said. “I’ve moved around a lot, but this is the longest I’ve been in one place my whole life and I came here at 19. I’m 28 now. I pretty much grew up here. So for me to think about being somewhere else, it’s a weird feeling. But at the same time, I don’t know what it’s like to be somewhere else. I’ve been here my whole career. Maybe it’s better, maybe it’s not. I don’t know that. The best thing I can do is play, be the best I can be and hope it works out. I don’t know if it will be here, if it will be somewhere else. I don’t know that. But right now, I can’t hang on to that. I can’t control that. I think when the season’s over and everything is done, then you sit down and you go through that stuff. But for me to think about it now, it’s just a waste of energy because I don’t even know — what am I supposed to think about? I don’t know what city. So it’s just a waste of time.”
Deng’s agent, Ron Shade, wouldn’t confirm the identities of the teams who have inquired about Deng’s future services but did admit that his client has drawn multiple inquiries.
“Several teams have already shown a lot of interest in Luol’s upcoming free agency. A lot of people are excited. A lot of people were shocked that no offer was extended to him for us to turn down and a lot of people are excited to get a chance to bid for a player like Lu, and they think it’s a great opportunity to might be able to get him for nothing in return if the Bulls let him walk,” said Shade, who along with Herb Rudoy represents Deng. “A lot of people see him in the role that he’s in now, a great second option. Obviously a great defender, but I think the one thing that people are saying and what people want to see him do more of, is showing what he’s capable of doing offensively. He’s a great sidekick, but when Derrick went down, I think he scored 25 or 26 points per game in the first five games after the injury, and people are intrigued to see him do more of that in a new situation, while bringing the same defensive intensity and defensive mentality that he’s been known for in Chicago.”
Chicago close to Deng's heart ... and vice versa
Deng’s reputation on the defensive end and as one of the league’s elite two-way players has been burnished over the past three seasons, coinciding with Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tenure in Chicago. Thibodeau, who frequently lauds Deng as the Bulls’ “glue,” unsurprisingly didn’t want to discuss the league’s back-to-back minutes-per-game leader (and the NBA’s leader in overall minutes played the season before that) in terms of his possible departure after the season.
“I don’t look at him in terms of free agency. I look at him in terms of what he brings to our team, and he’s done an incredible job for us over the last four years, really. And it’s because of the fact that he plays both sides of the ball, he plays to win, he can guard multiple positions, he can score, he can rebound, he can make plays. I think sometimes that gets overlooked. But probably the most important thing is he gives you some toughness on the floor. That part is one of his strengths, and I think he’s being recognized for that now. Being a two-time All Star, that says people are recognizing how important he is to the team and what he brings to winning. You can’t really measure him statistically, even though his statistics are good,” the coach said. “I think he’s gotten more recognition. I know how I always felt when I was on an opposing team. He was a guy that I always had great concern with because if you don’t pay attention to him, he’s going to hurt you and he can hurt you a lot of different ways. mid-range game, he can shoot the three, he can post up, he moves well without the ball, he can run the floor. There’s a lot of different things that he does that can hurt you. I always felt that he played to win. He didn’t play for statistics. He didn’t play for himself. So I always had a lot of respect for that.”
Pressed about whether he’s even considered coaching a Deng-less Bulls team, Thibodeau would only say, “I love the team we have. I think we have great guys. I just worry about the guys that are here. I don’t worry about any of the other stuff, whether it’s trade talk, free agency, the draft. You just worry about the things we can control. We’ve got a great group of guys, and that’s all I can worry about.”
Deng’s teammates feel the same way.
Bulls center Joakim Noah, who played on the Eastern Conference All-Star team alongside Deng last season, shied away from discussing where Deng ranked in the pecking order of NBA small forwards or in the free-agent class, perhaps sensing the leading nature of the question.
“To me, I don’t care. That’s my teammate. That’s who I go to battle with. I don’t care about comparing him to other guys. I can’t see myself playing with anybody else,” Noah said. “That’s my brother, and there’s nobody else I’d rather go to battle with. We started something together. Since I’ve been in the league, we’ve been together and I want to win with Lu.”
And despite the reality that the NBA is a business, it’s obvious that Deng is torn about the prospect of not being a Bull, particularly because he firmly believes that the team, if it can somehow avoid the injury bug that’s stricken them year after year, still has championship potential.
“With Thibs and the coaching staff and the guys that we have here, I would never doubt us, even right now. I would never, ever doubt what we have in here. I love relating stuff, but when you read stuff about Nelson Mandela, when Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years, anyone could have said, ‘You know what? I’ve tried, I’m done. I’m gone, whatever.’ But it’s just the belief that you have within. There’s something that you know, that others don’t know and for me, it’s how I feel with our core. I really believe that if you put us out there any night and you say, ‘Look, you’re playing this team in the NBA. You’re playing them seven times. Can you beat them?’ — and what we always try to strive to is to be healthy — if you tell me we get healthy at the end of the year and we play anyone, I love my chances and I’m not just saying that because I play here,” Deng said. “If I felt like, when we’re healthy, we can’t beat Indiana in seven or Miami in seven, then it’s no point. But I really believe that when we’re healthy, we can compete with anyone in this league and that’s the belief that makes you — every game, even when you lose — you just can’t wait for everyone to get healthy and you just keep going, and you keep doing your best. I think that’s what pushes all of us and you hear, ‘This guy’s gone, this guy’s gone.’ I really don’t care until it happens. That’s their (the front office’s) job.”
That’s why he hasn’t even come close to ruling out remaining in Chicago, and despite not receiving an offer from Bulls general manager Gar Forman over the summer, there are no hard feelings on his part.
“Honestly, I wanted something to be done. I wanted to be here. I really felt we were going to. I don’t know how the money works. I don’t know what needed to be done. I really don’t know any of that stuff. But after the spinal tap, I went away and everything, I think I was waiting to hear from the Bulls. I was waiting to hear from Gar, and I really thought there would be weeks, maybe months of going back and forth, and trying to get it done. I felt like I’ve been here since I was 18. I’ve worked hard. They’ve seen me come in and do everything. But for whatever reason, Gar felt like it wasn’t the time yet,” he explained, shedding some light on the negotiation process, or lack thereof, without bitterness. “Whatever that was, he’s the GM and that’s the direction they’re going. I know I can be gone, but it doesn’t mean that I’m gone and I told Gar, when I sat down, ‘Look, my last contract was six years. I still have another year to do my job and that’s all I want to focus on, and at the end of the year, when that’s up, then that’s time to talk, if that’s what you want.’ So right now, he didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just how it is.”
[RELATED: Bulls rookie Erik Murphy remains patient]
Cream of the free agency crop?
The Bulls’ position was understandable and made plenty of sense, considering the potential roster flexibility the team will have next summer — including the possible arrival of 2011 first-round draft pick Nikola Mirotic, the reigning Euroleague MVP — and the fact that, entering Rose’s comeback campaign, a wait-and-see approach was prudent in general. But considering the current landscape, how Deng is presently regarded around the league and the way he’s played after the Bulls lost Rose, averaging over 24 points per game on approximately 51 percent shooting in the nine games he’s played since then, there will be stiff competition for the organization to keep him in Chicago.
“No disrespect to any of the guys who are in this free-agent class,” said Shade, who called his client “Option 1A” to James and Anthony. “But not many of them have shown the ability to help their team win, both on the offensive end and defensive end of the court like Lu has over his whole career, especially in the last three years.”
Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown — coincidentally, Cleveland is a team that’s been rumored to be interested in Deng via trade, though Brown was simply asked about what the small forward brings to the table for the Bulls — praised not only Deng’s skills, but his intangibles, a sentiment that is representative of how many around the league feel about him.
“He’s just a tough, gritty veteran that really knows how to play. Derrick Rose obviously is the head of the snake for this team, but Luol is a very, very important piece,” Brown said. “He’s helped them win a lot of games. He makes them different because of his length and his ability to understand how to play the game the right way offensively. He’s a heck of a defender and he just does stuff that doesn’t add up in the box score, and on top of that, you have to game plan for him every time you step on the floor against the Bulls.”
After the aforementioned Anthony and James, it’s hard not to view Deng as perhaps the most attractive option for a team looking to become a contender or as the final piece to the puzzle for a squad already in the running. Besides Heat All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who are in the same boat as Miami teammate James with their early-termination option, the biggest names are future Hall of Famers who nobody thinks will leave their longtime teams (San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki), a hodgepodge of aging or fading veterans (the Pacers’ Danny Granger, the Nets’ Paul Pierce and the Lakers’ Pau Gasol), players deemed unlikely to sacrifice their player options (Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Sacramento’s Rudy Gay) and restricted free agents coming off their rookie deals (Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe, Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, Pistons big man Greg Monroe and Chicago native Evan Turner of Philadelphia).
Given how last offseason went in the NBA, with similar two-way players like Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith receiving long-term contracts from Golden State and Detroit for $12 million and $13 million per season, respectively, one league executive’s assertion that the starting point for Deng could be in a similar range could very well be accurate. But Deng insists that he isn't eyeing other players’ paydays as a barometer.
“I’ve never looked at anyone else’s money and said, ‘I’m worth more than them.’ As a competitor, you look at it like, ‘Man, he did great for himself. I want to be at that level.’ But in this league, it’s so good to see other players get paid, especially when they’ve worked hard and at times, even when they don’t deserve it. No, for real,” he said, after drawing a laugh from his interviewer. “When they don’t deserve it, I’m happy for them because what a lot of people don’t realize is we’re not playing this game forever. We’re not. The NBA is going to be there, the league is going to be there, so when I see someone who’s worked hard and gets paid, I’m very happy for them, and when I look at it, I’m like, ‘Man, I want to work hard and get paid also. I want to get what I deserve.’ But I don’t look at it and say, ‘You know what? I’m better than this guy. I should be paid more,’ because a lot of times with getting paid and contracts, it’s timing and luck. A lot of it, and some teams are desperate and they just make a move, and sometimes, some teams are waiting for you and sometimes it’s teams trying to go at each other. It’s so much to it. So blessings, luck, whatever you want to call it, has a lot to do with it and I never looked at it as, ‘I’ve got to get more than so-and-so.’ I think that’s for my agent — and I’m being honest — that’s his job. My agent, that’s a lawyer. So he’s got to go in there and say, ‘My player needs this because of this.’ That’s not for me to think or say.”
Winning is the biggest factor
Deng will never be a flashy player, jaw-dropping athlete or gaudy scorer. But last season helped him more easily adjust to being the Bulls’ top offensive option in the current campaign, and though his health is regularly brought up as a concern — it should be noted that last spring’s spinal tap and its aftereffects, which caused him to miss the tail end of the playoffs, wasn’t a basketball-related ailment — his efficient, high I.Q. game, which now includes post-up scoring, appears as if it will age well.
“I think last year really prepared me for this year. One thing for last year, not having Derrick going into the season, I had the mindset of, ‘I’m going to be asked to do a lot,’ and I think last year, there were times where I showed it and times where I didn’t. The majority of the time, I was very consistent, but there were times where I wanted to be more consistent and going into the playoffs, I was really hurt because I prepared myself the whole year for the playoffs. I wanted to show something and when the whole thing happened, I remember just — the stuff that was going through my mind was, ‘I’ve got to be better.’ That’s just the fire in me. So in the summer, I took time off, where I wasn’t cleared to play basketball for a while, and I had that time to just spend with family and travel and just be to myself, and I really enjoyed it. Then, when I went to Hawaii, it’s the most I’ve ever pushed myself in my whole life,” Deng said, going on to describe his pre-training camp daily regimen of training, conditioning and skill work in a scenic setting, though not a party atmosphere. “So this year coming in, I knew Derrick would be back, and I wanted to be as good as I can be because I knew how good he is and how much better we would be as a team. Then, when everything happened with Derrick getting hurt, I knew right away, that I would have to take more of a scoring role, that I would have the ball more in my hands and I was ready for the challenge because I prepared myself to be a better player, because of what happened the year before.
“What hurt me in the past was when I got hurt and people said two things: 'He’s fragile, he always gets hurt,’ and I got paid and I didn’t care about the game. To me, that’s two things that’s not me. Just if you see the stuff that I do outside the court just to be able to perform at my best, you will understand that what I put my body through in order to be prepared to play the minutes that I play. Then, you will know. How I come in early to prepare myself for whatever kind of day we have, whatever week is coming up, how many games we’re playing. All that stuff, you prepare yourself for,” he went on to say. “With Thibs and the coaching staff, it became so easy to me, I think — and I’m not trying to say anything bad because (former Bulls head coach) Scott Skiles was great for me when I first came in — but when you’re losing and people just turn on the TV, and you’re losing and the team doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s easy to judge each individual. Because you’re all in a group, no one knows what you do at night or come in. With the coaching staff with Thibs, I can call at 7 at night and Griff is ready to come here in the gym, so I have no excuse to not work hard and with Thibs’ system, with the way we play, every game we give ourselves a chance, whether we win or not.
“I think true fans and people who know basketball see it, and for the past three years, it erased everything because you cannot turn on the TV and say, ‘This guy’s not playing hard,’ or ‘He’s not competing.’ I think in the past, when I was playing 25 minutes, playing 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes, it wasn’t consistent. Now you turn on the TV, you know how many (minutes), ‘Luol’s going to be in the game most of the time, he’s playing hard the whole time.’ Then, there’s a game the next day and it’s the same thing, and that’s what helped erase it. It’s not anything to do with I have better numbers or my numbers went through the roof. In my mind, I really think people got to see how hard I play under Thibs and that’s really what erased it. I’m not the type of guy who, I was averaging 10 (points per game) and all of a sudden, next year I was averaging 20. My numbers didn’t jump like that. It’s just people got to see me more.”
With the Bulls’ success over the past few seasons providing insight into his game for a wide audience, Deng isn’t overly concerned about what his role might be in the future, whether in Chicago or elsewhere, moving forward.
"It depends. I don’t think that (his role) matters. If I’m here and we’re healthy, and we add another player and I’m asked to be the third guy, and I’m here and we’re winning, I’m OK with that. I just want to play, I want to have a role. I’m fair. I’m not the type to — I don’t want to come out and say, ‘I want the ball in my hands, the offense should go through me.’ Some people do that. I don’t see basketball that way. I feel like I’m going to work hard. I’m going to be good enough for me to be an option out there on the court. The past two years, I didn’t average 20-something and I was an All Star. I’m OK with that. I’m not the type to come out and say, ‘I want a bigger piece.’ If anything, I’ll work harder and play harder and do more stuff on the court. I would never come out and say, ‘The offense is not going through me. I’m not getting enough shots.’ I might talk to my friends about it, that ‘we should do this,’ but I would never put something out there. That, I don’t think is the way to go,” he explained. “I want to win. A winning situation, that’s it. I want to be in a place where guys are committed, the team is committed, the organization is committed, the coaching staff knows what direction they’re going. To me, I play better and I shine better and I’m a better player on a team that’s committed to winning. I’ve been on teams that are losing in the past, and it’s shown that it isn’t for me because it just drags everybody down. But when a team knows where they’re going, what direction they’re going, I want to be in a winning environment. That’s where I want to be.”