With the Bulls’ summer league run in Las Vegas ending Friday night and only one roster spot necessary to fill as options on the free-agency market dwindle, it’s only natural that an even more increased focus turns to the upcoming season.
Besides Derrick Rose’s comeback, perhaps no topic is of greater interest than perceived ways to improve the team. Due to the Bulls’ financial situation, the organization’s biggest splash this summer has been the acquisition of veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr., which has been hailed by some observers as an underrated signing but seemingly has left many others questioning whether enough has been done during the offseason.
Since the Bulls didn’t have much leeway to attract high-profile and higher-salaried free agents — remember, Dunleavy took less money to come to Chicago — the only way to significantly improve the existing personnel is via trade. And with Rose’s untouchable status and the onerous contract of Carlos Boozer, the two players viewed as having the most value to rival teams are All Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.
Noah, arguably the game’s most unique center, possesses a very reasonable contract, and despite his limitations, specifically as a scorer, he’s universally viewed as a game-changing presence because of his rebounding, defense and intangibles, making him very desirable in a league where players at his position are often one-dimensional space-eaters. Those same qualities, however, also make his name a non-starter for the Bulls front office when he’s requested in trade proposals. To say that management would absolutely never deal Noah for a star-caliber player would be inaccurate; but what’s regarded as equal value would have to presented in return — straight up, and not with valuable assets, such as the emerging Jimmy Butler, the rights to 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic or the future lottery pick eventually coming from Charlotte — to be taken seriously.
That leaves Deng, who is entering the final year of his current pact with the team. At this point, trading him wouldn’t yield an optimal return — viewed as a one-year rental because there’s no assurance he would re-sign with a new team after the season, prospective trade partners would be right to low-ball the Bulls in any discussions — and would imperil an expected title-contending campaign.
The Bulls’ longest-tenured player, Deng has gone through his ups and downs in Chicago, going back to what ended up being a severe leg injury that prevented him from participating in the team’s epic first-round playoff series against Boston in 2009, the initial year of his long-term deal. Since then, he’s transformed his reputation in both the Windy City and across the NBA, evolving into the league’s premier workhorse and thriving as an all-around player, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman recently acknowledged to reporters in Las Vegas that negotiations with Deng’s representatives had begun on reaching a new agreement to keep the small forward in the only uniform he’s worn in the NBA. It would be mildly surprising if the two parties came to terms this summer, but the proactive nature of the club seems to indicate that not only is it gauging what Deng believes he can command in the open market in 2014 — a process that the team initiated by even taking calls about him leading up to the past two drafts — but an admittance that taking part in the expected free-agent sweepstakes next summer might not be the most prudent course of action.
The likes of superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony could opt out of their present contracts — the same goes for Chicago native Dwyane Wade, now a tier below the aforementioned pair but a viable option, especially because of fellow Marquette product Butler’s ability to play both wing positions — but they very well could stay put in Miami and New York, respectively, or even consider alternative destinations, such as Los Angeles, where the Lakers are certain to be a major player after failing to retain Dwight Howard earlier this month. If Anthony indeed leaves New York, Hollywood would make some sense because of his friendship with Kobe Bryant, as well as his wife’s separate entertainment career, and if after the upcoming season James decides that the Heat’s run has seen better days, L.A. would have to garner some consideration, though some observers believe that Ohio’s prodigal son could return to Cleveland and play alongside young All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
Assuming Rose returns to form and Thibodeau’s USA Basketball presence helps recruiting efforts, it’s feasible to believe that 2014 could be different than 2010 (let’s not talk about 2000), and the big names will think long hard about relocating to Chicago. But it’s far from a guarantee, and after perusing the list of other players who could be available — aging stars like Wade, Bryant and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki — bringing back Deng seems like a much safer bet, even with him turning 29 years old next April and with a lot of mileage since entering the league after just one year in college.
Expecting a significant hometown discount might not be in the cards — one rival executive, who told CSNChicago.com that he “loves” Deng’s game, estimated that a multi-year deal would start in the $11- or $12-million range for the native of South Sudan — but at least starting the dialogue early gives the Bulls a chance to see how realistic a continuation of the marriage could be. Deng isn’t a dominant scorer or an explosive, highlight-reel type of athlete, but his blend of upper-echelon defense, ability to score without needing a high number of touches, quiet leadership and overall on-court versatility is something that isn’t always appreciated on first glance. Still, while his value in Chicago is probably higher than it would be in a lot of other places because of how he fits into Thibodeau’s system, his underrated talents are no secret in NBA circles, and if no deal can be struck this summer or next offseason, letting Deng walk away without compensation will undoubtedly be regarded as folly, pending whoever becomes his de facto replacement.
With how the league’s collective-bargaining agreement has already and will continue to impact teams, even in this era of multiple so-called superstars joining forces, for the more balanced teams, major market or not, the benefits of keeping together a deeper core might outweigh the riskier approach of swinging for the fences, especially with a elite player like Rose on hand.
Whatever strategy the Bulls ultimately pursue, getting the ball rolling with Deng now is important, no matter how the process ends.