In the long run, trading Luol Deng means the Bulls have committed to new possibilities, tacitly acknowledging that whether or not there was still a sliver of hope for the team's core to realize a championship, which was fully assembled back in 2010, it was time for a new direction.
As for the short term, it means third-year swingman Jimmy Butler, effectively taking on Deng's role as the Bulls' primary two-way option on the wing, must deliver on his potential — and stay healthy — for the remainder of the season. The Bulls can sign Butler to his second contract, a multi-year extension by next fall or let him become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 campaign, so obviously his performance through rest of the regular season looms large.
For rookie Tony Snell, nicknamed "Little Lu" by his teammates, Deng's departure represents an opportunity. While the New Mexico product has played well when called upon — namely, when Deng and Butler have been out of the lineup — Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has no choice but to play him consistent minutes now, meaning like Butler, Snell's play will be under greater scrutiny.
The Bulls' other wing, Mike Dunleavy Jr., has become one of the team's most reliable players as of late and now that not only his goal of competing of a title have been dashed by Derrick Rose's season-ending knee injury, but the team's chances of making the playoffs are decreased with Deng's trade, the veteran has to be dismayed about how his free-agency decision has turned out. At the same time, being an experienced, well-traveled professional — not to mention the son of a former player, coach and executive — Dunleavy understands how the league works and will keep the same demeanor, knowing that his shooting ability and reasonable contract make him a commodity as the trade deadline approaches and since the Bulls appear to be in asset-grabbing, cost-cutting mode, there's some probability that he could be moved, with potential suitors (such as Houston; according to a USA Today report, the Rockets are interested in acquiring Dunleavy) likely being playoff contenders needing to add his coveted perimeter marksmanship.
Bulls players other than the ones directly impacted by Deng's nightly minutes total will also be affected by his loss. It goes without saying that Deng's on-court versatility and consistent scoring will be missed, but so will his quiet leadership and ability to unite teammates in the locker room and on the sidelines, something the casual fan isn't privy to seeing.
Joakim Noah, already the Bulls' emotional leader, now takes on an even greater role and while the center has reprised his uncanny offensive facilitating for a team often light on point production in the aftermath of Rose going down, the All-Star must be counted on for stability, consistency and even scoring without Deng. Similarly, when fellow big man Taj Gibson, in the midst of a breakout season, has a double-figure scoring outing, it can no longer be looked at as a pleasant surprise, but a nightly necessity in Deng's absence, as replacing the team's leading scorer, though a collective effort, is a load that has to be shouldered by specific players, including the Bulls' top reserve.
Kirk Hinrich also catches some of the trickle-down effect, with opposing teams sensing that the Bulls are open to dealing — Golden State reportedly has him in its sights — could now target the veteran floor general to add valuable depth as a steady and experienced backup point guard, not a need to be taken lightly in this era of premier players at the position, many of whom, like Rose, have suffered significant ailments this season. Then there's the currently sidelined Carlos Boozer, who has to now wonder when, not if, the other shoe drops for him and although it's more likely to happen after the season, as Bulls executive vice president John Paxson hinted about the organization utilizing the amnesty provision on the much-maligned power forward during Tuesday morning's press conference at the United Center, the feeling of limbo on a non-contender can't be a good one.
That's just the reality, but none of that means the Bulls, now in sixth place in an Eastern Conference that isn't exceedingly difficult to climb in the standings, will hit an immediate downward spiral, as evidenced by Tuesday's home win over a competitive Phoenix squad and as Paxson said, not with players like Noah or a coach like Tom Thibodeau, not to mention a somewhat favorable schedule leading into a six-game West Coast trip beginning at the end of this month. Simply becoming a lottery team because Deng is gone isn't a given, so grabbing assets like the future draft picks acquired from Cleveland (and the protected selection from Charlotte from the 2010 Tyrus Thomas trade, which the Bobcats may or may not surrender this year) and accruing cap space for free agency has become a priority, regardless of whether the front office chooses to term it as rebuilding.
But is the aforementioned Thibodeau, who guided a conference finalist in his first season at the helm in Chicago, necessarily the ideal coach for a team with potentially lowered expectations moving forward? Both the coach and Bulls management have to be examining that issue as we speak, especially considering that Thibodeau's former boss, Doc Rivers, might have set a precedent for highly-regarded coaches with his move to the Clippers last summer.
Last month's popular rumor, that New York has interest in Thibodeau, a one-time Knicks assistant, replacing Mike Woodson next season, not only makes a little more sense now, but is a whisper gaining steam in NBA circles, particularly after the Bulls jettisoned arguably the coach's favorite player, even if it was a move that couldn't have taken him completely by surprise. Conversely, even considering Thibodeau's track record, a coach with more of a big-picture approach might be a better fit for an organization unsure of whether its franchise player returns to an elite level of play in the near future and if he does, exactly who or how experienced the supporting cast around Rose will be.
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Capitalizing on the opportunities opened up by trading Deng is clearly the Bulls' goal, but the steps general manager Gar Forman takes to get there — from smaller maneuvers leading up to next month's trade deadline to more long-ranging personnel decisions in the coming offseason and beyond — will be the interesting part to monitor.