Luol Deng's contract situation was always going to be a source of contention for the Bulls this season. Deng is finishing out the last season of a six-year, $71 million contract he signed way back in 2008 and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Coming to an agreement on a new deal with Deng, or finding a replacement for him in the event that he's let go, is the most important non-Derrick Rose question facing the Bulls in the immediate future. There's lots of opinions on what to do with Deng, but there's little consensus. This is a slippery slope.
The latest twist: an ESPN report stating the Bulls are not likely to trade Deng in-season. It would make sense because the Bulls are not known for making hasty decisions. They haven't made an in-season trade since the one that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller here in 2009. Keeping Deng's Bird Rights for the negotiation process is desirable as well. More than anything, it hints that the Bulls really don't know what they want to do yet with Deng. It seems obvious the organization would like to bring him back, but only if the price is right.
So: at what point is the price right? Remember, it only takes one team to ruin everything. The Bulls found this out the hard way with Ben Gordon, when the Detroit Pistons signed him to a five-year, $55 million deal. While losing Gordon stung in the immediate, and while he had a great career on the Bulls, he (obviously) has not come close to living up to that deal. This is why free agency is generally a deal with the devil.
There's two obvious touchstones for a potential extension with Deng; both were contracts signed last summer. Andre Iguodala signed a four-year, $48 million deal with the Warriors. Josh Smith signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Pistons. Iggy is 29 (he'll be 30 at the end of January), Smith turned 28 years old earlier this month. Deng is actually two months younger than Joakim Noah, despite having a three-year head-start on him in the league. Deng will turn 29 years old in April.
Of course, what makes this negotiation tricky is that the Bulls aren't paying for what Deng has done previously, they're trying to project what he'll be worth in the future. You can make the argument that Deng is destined to start trending down. He's led the league in minutes two of the last three seasons. Since Tom Thibodeau has become the head coach, Deng has never averaged less than a comically high 38.7 minutes per game. This season, Deng has battled an Achilles injury and is still playing 38.4 minutes per game. He also has torn ligaments in his left wrist that he suffered in January of 2012 that have never been repaired. It doesn't appear like Deng ever plans on having the surgery to fix that.
Deng's shooting is also starting to slip. Typically around a 46 percent shooter from the floor for the majority of his career, Deng's last two seasons have ended with shooting percentages at 41.2 and 42.6. That is not good. Deng has rebounded this season, though, averaging a career-high 19.6 points per game on 45.8 shooting from the field (even though he's shooting 28.1 percent from three). That will play.
Maybe the Bulls have grinded years off Deng's career. Or maybe Deng is just built to take the punishment? It might be in his genes. Despite all of the minutes, Deng has generally been durable since that awful 2009 season when Bulls management misdiagnosed his original injury and essentially recommended he should "tough it out" instead of taking the proper time to heal. Gosh, that was a dark chapter. Ever since, though, Deng has been dependable. He's played in 231 out of a possible 255 games, including this season.
There is one other factor complicating this process, and no, it's not Reggie Rose. As I've written previously, I do not think Nikola Mirotic will come over for only the mid-level exception. He makes too much money already in Spain to do that. To sign him, the Bulls have to be under the cap. There's only one way they can get under the cap: let go of Deng and amnesty Carlos Boozer.
Even though this summer is reportedly the Bulls' target for bringing over Mirotic, his own contract negotiation is going to make things interesting. The hope is that the Bulls are prepared for Mirotic wanting more than the MLE. In my head, I envision a scenario playing out where they are not. This is mostly because it's difficult to have faith the organization will cut Carlos Boozer and his remaining $16.8 million in salary. It's a move the Bulls should make if Deng is let go, but the team's conservative financial history is well-documented. I would not be surprised if we have to wait another season for Mirotic, meaning he'd be on the team in the 2015-16 season when Boozer's deal expires.
So for all of this debate over what the Bulls should pay Deng, the real question might be: would you rather have Deng and Boozer on the team next season, or Mirotic and, let's say, $6-7 million in cap space? The vast majority of us are here are taking the latter option.
It's easy to see why the Bulls would want to bring back Deng. It's easy to see why they would have hesitations up to a certain point. This report is a bit troubling, though, because it shows indecision. There's value in dumping Deng this year, too, and that's to improve your own draft pick. Embrace the tank. The Bulls would already have the eighth best lottery chances if it started today. Trade Deng and you should fall even further down the standings. That's a great thing. There's seven terrific prospects in this draft and the Bulls desperately need to add young talent at a cheap price.
With so many factors in play, it's easy to see why this is such a source of frustration. There's value in waiting (maybe Mirotic really does take the MLE, and you get him and keep Deng). There's value in cutting the chord now. It's not an easy position for the Bulls to be in, but no one gets into this business for easy decisions. One thing is clear: it's a decision the Bulls are going to have to nail one way or another if they want to remake the team and give Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau another shot at a championship.