Luol Deng contract extension: future free agency points to team shakeup in 2014

USA TODAY Sports

alternatively: 'the once and future Deng'

As was reported on Tuesday morning by Aggrey Sam (and confirmed elsewhere), the unlikely-in-the-first-place Luol Deng extension talks appear to be dead. As Deng is under contract now through the end of the upcoming season, any extension would be for 3 additional seasons whereas Luol could get a 4-year deal (or 5, if the Bulls offered) in unrestricted free agency. The incentive for the Bulls to at least try such a move now likely had that years-discount in mind as well as a monetary-discount one. Good job, good effort. Though probably not much of an effort.

Both Kelly Dwyer and Steve Aschburner, national guys who know their Bulls, have excellent takes on the situation. In short: it's kind of a weird one. As they point out, Deng has had a great career for the team, but it's approaching a very interesting crossroads. His numbers have steadied-to-diminished at the same time as when the league has started to recognize his play (with back-to-back All-Star selections). And though he's shown to be as indispensable as ever given the amount of minutes he's logged, it's also looking like he's trending towards being replaceable. Namely by Jimmy Butler.

Dwyer references an 'irrational confidence' that Bulls fans have in Butler, but reasons that Butler's second-year breakout could indicate a reasonable facsimile of what Deng will do in the coming years. A cheaper facsimile, too. Which is important given the likely structure of this team going forward.

And for as much stick as we give Boozer, and as much as we've cooled over Deng in this column, finding replacements for their production with that cap space will be nigh on impossible.

Typically, Chicago would let Deng walk, waive Boozer, and work around the edges while extending Jimmy Butler. Typically, the Bulls are far more interested in the savings, while pointing to the fact that they're not keen to pay the luxury tax for a third consecutive season. With the Bulls slated to be a mid-level exception away from paying the tax in 2014-15 even if Deng walks for nothing, this is a concern. Especially because there are only eight rotation players on the books for that particular season.

The 'typically' context Dwyer uses is in reference to what the Bulls have shown us in the past. They'll spend to a point when contending, but them going into Netsian tax-land (a repeater, to boot) to keep everyone together won't be an option.

Butler may continue to develop, but it'd be quite the story if he gets to the level of prime Luol Deng (oh, and now you need a shooting guard again...). Similarly, even if Nikola Mirotic is as good as hype (and translated Euroleague stats) would suggest, that's still a lot to ask for him to be as good of an offensive contributor as Carlos Boozer. The Bulls will have some more of their beloved flexibility in the summer of 2014, but it will take some fortuitousness to merely get back to where they've previously been, let alone improve.

This isn't to say anything is screwed...it's a next-offseason concern, ultimately. But what this is all pointing to is that this upcoming season is the last best chance for 'the core'. And they have a pretty good chance (the Mike Dunleavy signing, you guys), but not a favored one. As Aschburner points out:

Some might argue that Chicago isn't even all-in on 2013-14, despite Rose's need for consistency around him as much as added talent. The Carlos Boozer countdown will be busy, with the veteran power forward headed to the amnesty pile next offseason. Rose could be rusty, Boozer and Joakim Noah might be due for breakdowns, the roster still needs another big and Deng is facing the equivalent of a qualifying year. With the exception that he could be dealt by the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

The other contenders have their flaws as well, so this is still a really good shot. And thus why Deng won't be dealt (and I don't think that uncertainty will effect his play like Aschburner does) and really shouldn't be.

That isn't to say the Bulls need to extend Deng or not amnesty Boozer either. "Losing them for nothing" is a poor strategy in general*, but it's not the Bulls worst play in this case. You want to hold on to them now because they can still contribute to a win-now season. But going forward, the contracts they'd receive (or in Boozer's case, still get regardless) wouldn't be for their prime years, but for a diminishing future version. As Dwyer points out, some team will likely give Deng a contract that's market-rate yet still a mistake, which is one the Bulls can't realistically (Reinsdorfian-realism, I'm considering) make. That's not a question as to whether Butler can be as good as prime Luol Deng, it's his relation to years 28-31(and more appropriately, seasons 10-13) for Deng.

[*this is similar to the Asik situation: you didn't want to deal him in 2012 before he was a free agent because he was a key contributor to a title challenger. The issue wasn't losing him for nothing but losing him at all. And not signing him to a 3-year deal in the first place.]

Trying to avoid that mistake with an 'early' extension was worth a try, but it wasn't likely going to happen and now looks like it definitely won't. For this season, that's ok: Deng should be pretty much as good as he's been as a Bull and his team has a shot at the title. But as much as next offseason presents interesting possibilities, it's also very likely the end of an era.

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