If you’re a Chicago Bulls fan, the 2013-14 season marks the return of Derrick Rose. For most fans, a healthy season for Rose and one more year for this talented core to compete in the Eastern Conference would be enough. But the sad truth is that this season, a season that marks one superstar’s shaky return from an ACL injury, might be Chicago’s best shot at contending for a title for the next few years. And that’s not because I think Rose will return better than ever; I honestly have no idea what to expect from the former MVP. But because of the developing Luol Deng dilemma in the Windy City, this may have to be the Bulls best shot at a title.
A little more than a week ago, ESPN reported that Luol Deng and the Bulls had tabled contract extension talks until next season after they were unable to come to an agreement. Deng’s agent also reported that the two-time All-Star will explore free agency in 2014 once his contract with the Bulls expires. And with that report, the clock attached to Chicago’s closing title window began ticking.
Trade rumors regarding Deng have been circulating on and off for the past few seasons, so we know this situation had to come to a head eventually. But if you had told me the Rose-Deng-Carlos Boozer-Joakim Noah nucleus only had a three-year title window in 2011, after the Bulls finished with a 62-20 record and sat atop the East, I would have laughed. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the NBA these days, and here’s the truth: If the Bulls can’t find a way to re-sign Luol Deng after the 2013-14 season, they better hope they won the title. Because Deng is more important to the team’s success than many people realize.
For starters, Deng has career averages of 16.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.0 steals per game. That kind of balanced contribution isn’t flashy and doesn’t really stand out on paper, but it’s the kind of well-rounded, underrated play that has helped keep the Bulls relevant in the East, even without Derrick Rose on the floor. And for a Chicago team that already has problems putting the ball in the hole, Deng’s career field goal percentage (46 percent) is a huge boost. Critics (or those who are unconvinced that Deng is a nearly essential piece for the Bulls to have any hope of upsetting the Miami Heat) will tell you that his shooting has dipped in the past few seasons, which is true:
2009-10: 46.6 FG%
2010-11: 46.0 FG%
2011-12: 41.2 FG%
2012-13: 42.6 FG%
But what the statistics won’t tell you is that during the 2011-12 season, Rose played 39 games out of a possible 66. The following season, as well all know, Rose played zero games out of a total 82. So for 109 games, the Chicago Bulls were without their dynamic scorer, MVP and main playmaker. Which means Deng, the team’s second best scorer, had to step up every area of his game. His number of attempted field goals per game didn’t really spike like you’d expect without Rose on the floor, but that’s kind of the point: Without Rose on the floor, teams could key in on Deng as the Bulls’ primary offensive threat.
Plus, it’s no secret that Rose frees up shots for his teammates. The kind of deadly penetration and mid-air acrobatics Rose is known for make him fascinating to watch, but opposing defenses having to worry about those things absolutely makes life easier for guys like Deng. The most obvious statistic is Rose’s 7.7 assists per game in his last two active seasons, but Chicago is pretty effective with their hockey assists. Point being, there are literally scores of plays that start with Rose’s penetration and end with a bucket that don’t add a tally to his assist column.
All this talk about his offense might distract from Deng’s biggest value to the Chicago Bulls: his perimeter defense. Deng is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league at his position and has been an invaluable part of establishing and enforcing Tom Thibodeau’s domineering defense on opponents. There is no hope of getting through the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers without playing that physical brand of defense and Deng is absolutely a part of that.
Essentially, Deng is the perfect complement to the catalyst that is Derrick Rose, who normally generates the unstable chemical reaction that is the Chicago Bulls offense. He can knock down open 3s from Rose’s penetration, but he’s also smart enough to swing the ball to the open man or blow by a recovering defender to get to the basket. And although $14.3 million seems like a steep price to pay for Deng, don’t forget that there’s a much bigger Bulls blunder in the form of the $15.3 million Carlos Boozer will make this season. Or the $16.8 million he’ll make for the 2014-15 season.
I don’t want to pit Luol Deng vs. Carlos Boozer, but that’s essentially what this Deng dilemma comes down to. Chicago will be making a mistake if Deng leaves without a new contract because Boozer’s deal got in the way. Boozer’s capable of pulling in a double-double on any given night, but his lackadaisical-bordering-on-lazy defense has made Chicago fans cringe for years. Add in the fact that the Bulls have a ready and willing replacement waiting in the wings in Taj Gibson (who actually bolster’s Chicago’s already formidable defense) and it’s somewhat surprising Boozer hasn’t been dealt already.
Gibson’s offense isn’t nearly as consistent as Boozer’s and the jury is still out on who could possibly replace Boozer in bellowing “Gimme that s**t!” with every rebound he pulls down, but this Deng situation is a direct result of Boozer’s deal. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are the two most indispensable players on Chicago’s roster and Deng is the third. Boozer is a distant fourth, but if one takes into account his decent trade value he suddenly becomes more expendable. Deng probably has more trade value, but Jimmy Butler isn’t ready to fill the void just yet and Deng fits the Bulls’ system much better than Boozer does because of his perimeter defense.
So what does this all mean? Basically, the Chicago Bulls have a one-year title window unless they can sign Luol Deng to a new extension or trade him for a piece just as useful. But how many pieces like that exist in the league? The first name that comes to mind if Paul George, but the Pacers have no reason to even look at that trade unless the Bulls were willing to give up more. We could go through every small forward in the league, but either they’re not attainable in a trade for Deng or they don’t bring the same defensive and offensive balance. For the Chicago Bulls, the Deng dilemma means it could be 2013-14 or bust. Which is a lot of pressure to put on a certain superstar who still has to prove he can even stay healthy.