If it’s weighing on Luol Deng’s mind that in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s season-ending injury, a popular view is that the Bulls should trade him, lest he walk as unrestricted free agent next summer, it certainly isn’t showing in his play.
Coming into this season, his 10th in Chicago, the All-Star small forward privately vowed that this would be his best season ever. But the Bulls’ longest-tenured player envisioned himself playing sidekick to a healthy Rose on a team regarded by many observers as having championship potential, not reprising last season’s role as the squad’s go-to player, without departed one-on-one scorers Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli to help pick up the slack.
While his individual play hasn’t suffered—Deng is averaging 27.4 points, six rebounds, 6.2 assists and shooting 54.8 percent from the field in the five games since Rose was sidelined, including scoring a season-high 37 points in almost 56 minutes in Monday’s triple-overtime loss to New Orleans at the United Center—the native of South Sudan laments the fact that his teammate of six seasons, who called Deng the Bulls’ MVP during his own 2010-11 league MVP campaign, isn’t around to attempt to deliver on their offseason plans.
“It’s really hurting me because I really knew how much [work that Rose] put in and how much we were talking throughout the summer,” Deng said recently. “We did a better job than any other year just keeping in touch and just talking about how bad we want to win it all. We’re still going to fight for that, but I just feel bad that he’s not here.”
Alas, sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work out. But that hasn’t derailed Deng’s focus and although it hasn’t manifested itself in team success as of late, his value in this contract season—while it’s unlikely that the Bulls could get anything close to an equal return in a trade for a one-year rental, let alone a coveted first-round draft pick in a year with several college players deemed to be potential franchise-changing prospects—is readily apparent, as evidenced by Bulls general manager Gar Forman commenting on ESPN Radio that the organization hasn’t ruled out re-signing him next summer.
That stance makes complete sense, particularly assuming fellow All-Star small forwards LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony choose to either stay put in Miami and New York, respectively—it’s widely believed that the superstars will opt out of their current deals, but only to sign contract extensions, though Anthony will more than likely at least consider playing elsewhere—as Deng could be one of the more desirable free agents on the open market next summer. Even before the Bulls opened training camp, Deng’s representatives stated that he would explore unrestricted free agency after discussions surrounding an early extension with the organization stalled last summer.
But that’s neither here nor there right now, as Deng readjusts to being the Bulls’ focal point offensively, garnering increased defensive attention and becoming the team’s top option in the clutch.
“I work on my game every day. The situation, it happened. I can’t control that. Either way, in that situation or not, I work on my game every day. Whether it’s the last shot, first shot or a shot in the second quarter; I try to make every shot I take. It’s definitely a different situation that I haven’t been in. But at the same time, there’s been times in the past—not as much as now, but there’s times in the past—where I’ve been in those situations,” he explained. “I’m fine with it. I’ve got to make smart plays. I think I’ll get better with it. It’s something where lately, we’ve been going down to the wire. We’re going to be in that position a lot more. Every time I’m in that situation, I try to make the best out of it. At the same time, learn from it and next time, try to make a better play, try to be smarter and get us a better look. Whether I miss or not, or someone else gets the shot; as long as it’s the best look out there.”
Despite his stellar numbers recently, Deng isn’t necessarily satisfied with his production, which has been bolstered by improving as a post-up threat, allowing him to utilize his frequent size advantages.
“No, because we haven’t won,” he explained. “Individually, I’m shooting the ball great, but it’s finding ways to win.”
“I worked on it a lot with ‘Griff’ [Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin],” Deng went on to say about his back-to-the-basket game, an added dimension as a scorer and playmaker. “Coach told me last year in the summer that is was something he wanted me really to work on. I worked on it a lot and I’m getting better at it. I think I can be better. Teams are starting to send their bigs, so I have to kick out and find guys.”
No wonder Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is such vocal a supporter of Deng’s game, something made obvious by the indispensable small forward’s minutes-per-game totals. While Deng’s non-flashy game doesn’t always move the needle when it comes to casual observers or even the team’s passionate fan base, Thibodeau rejects the theory that the ironman is underappreciated.
“Certainly not by the people here. His teammates know how important he is and if you really study what he does, he’s one of the few guys that’s a huge plus on the floor on both ends in the league. He’s probably top-10. He’s a great defender, he’s a great offensive player and he’s a winning player,” the coach recently explained. “I know the impact he has on the game and we certainly appreciate all that he does. I think the fact that he’s been an All-Star now two years, I think that tells you that the league is recognizing how good he is, as well.”
That’s why, even in the immediate aftermath of Rose’s injury, the coach refused to accept that Deng or other core players, such as much-maligned power forward Carlos Boozer, would be jettisoned in a rebuilding fire sale.
“No, I don’t approach it that way. I just worry about the guys that are here. This is our team and whoever’s here, that’s who I worry about and just concentrate on our improvement, who we’re playing next and just working towards winning,” Thibodeau said.
“Look, my job is to coach the team. Whoever I have on the roster, that’s who I’m coaching. Their job, and whether Derrick is here or not, that’s what they have to do. They have to always look at the players that are available, they have to study, which they do, and you go from there. As I said before, I love the team we have, I love the guys we have in that locker room. I think we have great character, we have great fight, we have great determination, and we love the challenge,” he continued, talking about Bulls’ management. “They’ve got to do their job. I don’t think about that. I think about what we do have and so, their job is to always look at what the possibilities are. That’s the nature of this league.”
Thibodeau was right to not fret, as he and the front office, regardless of reports about past clashes, seem to be on the same page about retaining Deng, for both the near future and beyond. Whether or not that occurs, given the small forward’s rising stock, remains to be seen.
What’s certain is that Deng will embrace his role as the Bulls’ leading man for the remainder of this season, unexpected or not, and even with outside expectations reduced, he will compete with the same intensity, just with a bigger individual burden.