As he did the last four seasons each time he was asked about Luol Deng, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke glowingly about his former All-Star one last time, hours after Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three draft picks.
“It’s tough, but ‘Lu’ did an unbelievable job for us,” Thibodeau said at the United Center Tuesday afternoon. “He embodied everything we believed in: high character, intelligent, mentally tough, great humanitarian and he worked extremely hard, performed well. So we wish him well.”
Deng was an ironman in Chicago, playing through multiple injuries to keep the Bulls in contention, guarding opponents’ best player most nights and leading the league in minutes per game two different seasons. And no one appreciated that more than Thibodeau, a perfectionist who expects the most from his players each time they step on the court.
“He’s got a great approach to a lot of things,” Thibodeau said. “He’s very tough-minded. He’s not only a great player, he’s a great person. Nothing rattles Lu.”
And like his former two-time All-Star, Thibodeau won’t be rattled by the news of losing his leading scorer and leader in the locker room. Thibodeau and the Bulls have been ravaged by significant injuries the last four seasons perhaps more than any other team, but the head coach’s mantra of “next man up” pertains not just to injuries, but personnel changes as well.
[PHOTO GALLERY: Deng through the years]
“(Deng) was a big part of it, but so were all the other guys that are here. And I love our team. We’ve got great guys. We have to move on,” he said. “We can’t look backwards, and that’s the way we’re going to approach it. Lu did a great job, he’ll be a great addition for Cleveland. This is a part of the NBA. You just have to deal with it.”
Added Paxson: “It’s not realistic to ask Tom or his staff to be happy about it, taking a player of his caliber off your team. We know what he’s facing and we’re not sitting up here saying ‘Be happy about it.’ It’s hard. But what has to happen within an organization is that when decisions are made, you have to align and you have to move forward.”
The immediate outside reaction to the news of the Bulls dealing Deng was that the team was conceding this season in an effort to compile assets, both financial and in the draft, to be better suited for the long-term. While that may be true, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said the organization isn’t considering a rebuild, noting that the current personnel will allow them to continue their successes.
“Rebuilding is not a word you use when you have players like Joakim Noah on your team and you still have Derrick Rose, who we full expect to come back healthy,” Paxson said. “You don’t rebuild when you have a coach like Tom.”
The Bulls are 14-18, currently good for sixth place in the struggling Eastern Conference. Despite losing Deng, they still tout Noah, a reigning All-Star, along with Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer to make up a core worthy of playoff consideration.
Chicago will surely miss Deng’s 19.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, as well as his leadership and veteran presence, but Thibodeau noted that the Bulls have already experienced time this season without him – they are 4-5 in nine games without Deng – and will prepare for Tuesday night's game vs. Phoenix and beyond the same.
[WATCH -- Paxson: Deng leaves lasting impact on Bulls]
“We have a job to do, and that’s the way we have to approach it,” he said. “We love Lu, he did great things. This is a part of the NBA, whether it’s a trade or an injury. You’ve got to be ready for that next game. This means other people will have an opportunity, and when you get your opportunity, you get in there and get the job done.”
Mike Dunleavy is expected to start at small forward, with Jimmy Butler and rookie Tony Snell seeing an uptick in minutes. Thibodeau also said that, because of the team’s flexibility on the perimeter, it will allow him to play guards DJ Augustin and Kirk Hinrich together more.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves, we’re all part of it,” Thibodeau said. “We have good players, we’ve got to get out there and get it done.”
The United Center was quieter than usual after Tuesday’s shootaround. Joakim Noah declined comment to reporters and Boozer spoke softly about the news, saying that Thibodeau spoke to the team earlier about the situation and why the move was made.
“We’re a close group of guys and having (Deng) traded is tough for us. Obviously it frees up a lot of room for the organization and gives them a little bit more flexibility,” Boozer said, “but for us right now, we have heavy hearts.”
Of the unknowns down the road for the Bulls’ future, Paxson said the one guarantee is that the Bulls will continue to fight and compete to win each night. While he wouldn’t speak for the players, he believes the team the front office and him have put together in the present will remain competitive.
"We put a premium on character, and we have a ton of character in that locker room,” Paxson said. “And if we stay healthy those guys will compete every night.”