In a perfect world, the Chicago Bulls would have kept Luol Deng this year to play alongside a healthy Derrick Rose as the team fought for a seventh NBA championship.
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In that scenario, the Bulls would have given Deng a contract extension to keep him with Rose and Joakim Noah as part of an experienced core capable of competing with any team in the league. But in this era of free agency and a new collective bargaining agreement, the perfect scenario is almost never the one that plays out — both on the court and financially — for the majority of franchises.
Thus was the case in Chicago, where the Bulls front office was forced to make the difficult decision early Tuesday morning to trade forward Deng — who had been with the club the last nine years — to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three draft picks.
“(Luol) has gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined, and we appreciate that and respect that,” John Paxson said Tuesday afternoon at the United Center. “I want to convey from our organization to Lu, publicly, what he’s meant to us and how difficult a decision to move him this has been.”
The wheels started turning the night Rose suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 22 in Portland. To that point, the Bulls’ core remained intact and Rose, though struggling by his standards, was working the rust off and appeared to be rounding into form after missing the entire 2012-13 season recovering from a torn ACL.
But Rose’s second significant knee injury forced the front office to take a step back and assess the franchise’s future past this season.
“When Derrick had the injury against Portland, and we learned that surgery was going to keep him out the remainder of the year, at that time our focus had to broaden,” Paxson said. “We had to look a little bit more about the future and a little less about today, which is always a difficult thing to do in this business because you want to win. We made decisions the last few years to build the best basketball team that we possibly could. But the reality was this year that Derrick’s injury did force us to look at things in a broader perspective.”
That meant looking at Deng. The 6-foot-9 South Sudan native was in the midst of a career-best season, helping keep the Bulls afloat in Rose’s absence. But he was also playing out the last year of the six-year, $71 million deal he signed in 2008, and was set for unrestricted free agency at season’s end. The Bulls had intentions of keeping Deng if the price was right, but it proved fruitless.
The two sides failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension this past offseason, and after Rose’s injury and another round of extensions talks that went nowhere — Y! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Bulls offered Deng a three-year deal worth $30 million last week — the Bulls were faced with the reality that Deng’s future in Chicago was limited to the end of his current contract.
“It was an offer that we felt was competitive and very reasonable in a lot of ways, and the one thing that we were balancing and weighing was the fact that it would continue to build with this team: keep Luol but have the resources to continue to build with this team,” Paxson said of the Bulls’ offer to Deng. “And that offer we made was rejected, which is absolutely Lu’s prerogative and his right to do so. Players don’t very often have the chance to become free agents in this league, and you never want a player to take a contract or a deal that they’re not comfortable with, so the fact that he didn’t take it, we understand that completely.”
Paxson was also transparent on the Bulls’ mistreatment of Deng during last year’s playoffs, when Deng suffered complications from a spinal tap performed to see if he had meningitis.
“We did not handle that as well as he could have or should have. And we spoke to Lu and we didn’t understand the gravity of it in that moment, and that’s on us,” Paxson said. “But over the summer, we talked to Lu and apologized. That’s something that we dropped the ball on and we hopefully learn from. In terms of injuries, I think we’ve been really supportive of how he’s gone about things.
The trade ends an impressive run in Chicago for Deng, where he took a bottom-feeder franchise attempting to turn things around post-MJ and, with the help of Rose, Noah and others, turned them into one of the premier teams in the NBA. Deng sits fourth on the all-time scoring list in Chicago, behind Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love.
[WATCH -- Paxson: Deng leaves lasting impact on Bulls]
“I want to make it clear how difficult it was to do, if anything because of the respect and admiration we have for Lu, and what he’s meant to our organization,” Paxson said. “He’s been a true gentleman and a wonderful player.”