The Bulls' Luol Deng dilemma: What to pay the All-Star small forward?

USA TODAY Sports

Luol Deng is one of the most polarizing athletes in Chicago. The debate over his next contract is just getting started.

There have been hints along the way that perhaps Tom Thibodeau and Gar Forman do not see eye-to-eye on all matters regarding the Chicago Bulls, but a report last week from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports exposed how contentious the relationship might be. "Easily the worst in the NBA" was how Woj described the working kinship between Thibodeau and Forman after the dismissal of lead assistant Ron Adams, a move that upset Thibodeau and was analyzed to be a "power play" by Forman.

If Thibodeau and Forman are already at odds over what the Bulls should be, I hate to imagine what happens a year from now when Luol Deng becomes a free agent.

A lot will happen over the course of the next 12 months, sure. The Bulls haven't had their full squad in two seasons and seem to believe they can win the NBA championship as presently constructed. I'm right with them: no team has reached the NBA Finals four straight times since Larry Bird's Celtics, and the Heat will have to make it through their stiffest field of competitors yet to accomplish the task. It doesn't even have to be the Bulls who take out the Heat in the playoffs: the Pacers get Danny Granger back and should only have an even more powerful version of Paul George; the Nets are slow and old, yes, but they can shoot and post-up at all five positions.

Then there's the Bulls. Derrick Rose is back in the cut. Jimmy Butler enters Year Three after making tremendous strides as a sophomore. Joakim Noah is firmly entrenched in his prime. Mike Dunleavy adds some long distance shooting and helps contribute to what should be another capable bench.

In processing Deng's next contract extension, it's important to remember the rather sizable variable that is next season. If the Bulls go to the Finals, maybe win it, perhaps Luol Deng really is worth $12-13 million per season for the next four years. If Chicago loses to the Heat in the second round in six games, it might be time to change the direction of the roster.

One thing that truly worries me though is Thibodeau's affinity for Deng, and how that might affect his relationship with Forman should Deng walk. When Omer Asik and Kyle Korver were free agents before last season, I recall Thibs saying he wanted both players back. Welp, that's not how the Bulls do business: Korver was traded for an exception (and nothing more) that was never used, Asik was pried away on a poison pill [not so -yfbb] offer sheet because the team was too uncreative to match. If Thibs felt strongly about retaining role players, it makes me wonder how defensive he'll get about his favorite basketball player in the entire world, Luol Deng.

Deng has led the NBA in minutes two of the last three seasons. He plays right around 40 minutes per game, anchoring reserve-laden lineups while still acting as a pivotal cog in crunch time. He's a great defensive wing capable of sticking the opposing team's best perimeter player. And while the Bulls have been hesitant the last three years to use him as a small ball four, he has ideal size and toughness to accept the role, should he be asked.

I love Luol Deng. He seems to be one of the more thoughtful guys in the NBA, and his charitable work speaks for itself year after year. In a city that loves a blue collar, hardhat and lunch pail, Deng seems to embody those ideals more than anyone. Yet, there are plenty of folks who are ready for Deng time in Chicago to end. Why?

Realize that there was once a time when Deng's six-year, $71 million deal was considered to be in Chicago's Hall of Bad Contracts, mentioned alongside deities like Alfonso Soriano and Ben Wallace. Haters gonna hate, but I think it's safe to say Deng has earned every penny of that deal. That the Bulls and Deng are already talking about the parameters of a deal new that seems to be for similar money only reinforces this.

Deng isn't without his shortcomings, though. Every basketball fan in this town fetishizes the idea of isolation scoring, and that isn't Deng's strong suit. Per SynergySports, Deng averaged 0.82 points per possessions in iso situations last year, shooting 33-for-86 from the field. That ranked him No. 87 in the NBA in such instances, good for a 38.4 percent field goal percentage.

And it's true, Deng's offense has been trending downhill ever since January 21, 2012. That's when Deng tore the ligaments in his left wrist. And while Deng has made the All-Star Game twice since the injury, the only two times he has done so in his career, it still seems to be affecting his shooting stroke.

When Rose won MVP in Thibodeau's first season in town, Deng shot 46 percent from the field and 34.5 percent on (a high volume) 4.1 three pointers per game. In 2011-12, Deng shot 41.2 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three. Last season, he shot 42.6 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from three.

But still, when I see opinions from people who want Monta Ellis over Luol Deng, it really upsets me. Ellis can create his own shot and score in isolation, sure. But Ellis also takes a ton of things off the table -- namely defense, passing, size and rebounding. Deng, for whatever he lacks in elite athleticism and shot creation, doesn't really take anything off the table.

I think the Bulls' isolation scoring struggles are overblown, to be honest. It's been two full seasons since Chicago has seen a healthy Derrick Rose. That's your iso scorer. He's going to play (at least) 35 minutes a game; the goal is to surround him with parts that compliment his game. Namely: shooting, passing, defense and size. Deng checks all those boxes.

What it comes down to, in my opinion, is that someone like Deng helps you beat Miami a lot more than someone like Ellis would. To beat Miami, you need to play elite defense, you need to pass the ball, you need to stretch the floor. So long as Deng can reestablish himself as a viable threat from outside this season, I think he's the exact type of player that's needed to take on the Heat.

Deng does have a lot of miles on him, though, and if the Bulls are going to pay him $12-13 million for the next four seasons, it makes it very difficult to add more talent to the roster. With Jimmy Butler miniscule rookie contract expiring a year after Deng's, it's going to be nearly impossible for the Bulls to pay so many guys. This is where Derrick Rose's super-max contract is really a bummer.

Another underrated issue in the decision to extend Deng: stars like to play with stars. This has become fact over the last few offseason. The Bulls have one in Derrick Rose. If Deng is replaced by LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love, that's a sizable upgrade for the Bulls. For as much as I like Deng, he's a fringe All-Star who wants $12.5 million. I'd rather try to get a legit star for $15 million.

Wojnarowski again reported yesterday that Deng and the Bulls are talking extension. I think it's in the team's best interest to play out the season and see what happens. Even if Deng has the best season of his career, the Bulls probably wouldn't be paying him too much more annually. And while the Bulls do run the risk of losing Deng for nothing, I'm not going to freak out about that as much as some would. It creates cap space, it opens other avenues for improvement.

And I think that's the big question with Luol Deng: should he leave, do we trust the Bulls to get someone better than him? All I know is that if Deng leaves and isn't replaced immediately with Love, Aldridge or someone of that caliber, it isn't inconceivabled it could cost the Bulls Thibodeau as well.

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