Though his demeanor was lighthearted when he sat down at the podium, Luol Deng made it clear that the fact that he’s in a contract year wouldn’t be a distraction for him or the Bulls this season.
“I’m going to try not to talk about it and I’m going to try and do it in a nice way. I’ll try not to be rude. But honestly, I would rather not talk about it. I would rather play," the All-Star small forward said Friday at the Berto Center. "It is a situation where you sign a contract and it ends. I’m in my last year so I’ve just got to go out there and do what I’ve been doing, play basketball.
“We’ve got a great opportunity ahead of us. Derrick is back, everybody is healthy, we love the make-up of the team, we know our potential is great, so I just have to focus on us as a team and how good we can be, and I think everything will take care of itself. I know it’s going to come up here and there, there is always individual stuff, but honestly, I just want to put all my attention into the team and then see what happens after that.”
[More: Previewing Derrick Rose's return]
CSNChicago.com first reported that Deng’s representatives and the Bulls’ front office had broken off contract negotiations for a long-term extension. The 2013-14 season is the final year of Deng’s current deal and his camp has stated that he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman diplomatically addressed the matter at Friday’s media day, though he indicated that the team wouldn’t look to deal Deng this season, preferring to keep him around for a potential title push, instead of attempting a swap before the league’s February trade deadline.
“Luol Deng has been a very important part of what we’ve built up to this point and any success that we’ve had. And he will continue to be a big part of what we’re doing into the future. I don’t anticipate that there will be any type of problems with that at all,” he explained. “Luol and I talked yesterday. I think he’s in a great place both physically and mentally. I think he’s ready to help lead this team as we go forward.”
[More: Previewing Luol Deng's season]
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was more passionate when asked about Deng, his workhorse, the NBA’s back-to-back leader in minutes per game and the player the coach often refers to as the “glue” of the team.
“The thing is, for every player, there’s something. So for Derrick, it’ll be the ACL. For Luol, it’s going to be free agency. For Carlos, something else. We have to eliminate all that stuff and for us, our concentration has to be on exactly what’s in front of us,” he said. “Getting back to Luol, that’s the business side of the game, so that’s something that Jerry, John [Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president] and Gar, and Luol’s agent will take care of. Luol will focus on playing and I know from my end, I look at Luol and I see a special player. I don’t think you can win a championship without a player like Luol.
"He does so many things for our team that probably go unrecognized by most, except for his teammates, his coaches and people that are around him. He’s a complete player, he does whatever you ask, he’s very disciplined, he stays in great shape, prepares himself to guard multiple positions, move without the ball. He does a lot of things that make your team better that never appear in a box score, so he’s a hard guy to measure statistically, even though his statistics are very good. But he’s invaluable to us.”
[More: Bulls add six free agents to training camp roster]
Deng’s season ended on a sour note last spring, as he was sidelined with complications in the aftermath of a spinal-tap procedure performed in the Bulls’ first-round playoff series against the Nets. This summer, a salary range for Deng’s free-agent services may have been set with similar small forwards Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith landing $12-million and $13-million annual deals, respectively, on the open market.