Nov 30, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) walks to the bench during a timeout in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Bulls: Luol Deng's Audition

When the basketball world found out Derrick Rose was done for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus, it wasn’t hard to predict that Luol Deng would get plenty of opportunities for the Chicago Bulls on the offensive end. But since Rose went down, I don’t think anyone predicted Chicago’s offense would rely as heavily on Deng as it used to rely on the Bulls’ fallen MVP.

Case in point: last night’s triple overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. In a marathon 63-minute game, Luol Deng played a team-high 56 minutes. Out of Chicago’s 101 shots, Deng took 27 of them (nearly 27 percent). Deng shot 15-of-27 from the field to the tune of 37 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He did commit an appalling seven turnovers, but considering how much the ball was in his hands in such a grueling game, you can only fault him so much for getting fatigued and being a little sloppy down the stretch.

In the five games since Rose went down, Deng is averaging an absurd 27.2 points, 6.2 assists and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 55.4 percent from the floor. Just for reference, those are All-NBA numbers. He’s shot a pretty abysmal 28.5 percent from 3-point range, but his number of attempts from downtown has increased now that Rose’s shots are free to go around. But what does Deng’s leadership mean in context of a somewhat meaningless season?

Deng’s been giving the Bulls his all, but Chicago’s still lost four of its last five. At what point does the front office decide to cut their losses? Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s assume for a second that this is the same Chicago team we’ll see on the floor in April. As we learned last season, Tom Thibodeau runs his starters into the ground when the Bulls are limited by injuries. With both Rose and Jimmy Butler out, Deng is averaging a massive 42.6 minutes per game in his last five. Granted, one of those five games was a triple overtime contest, but those kind of minutes aren’t sustainable over the course of a few weeks, let alone an entire 82-game season.

Which leads me to my next point: Luol Deng’s inspiring play has a lot to do with his bond to his teammates. This Chicago Bulls team is a tight-knit group that depend on each other. They’ve battled together, they’ve beaten superior teams together and every time they take the court it’s pretty much all-out warfare since that’s what this team has to do to scrap with more talented opponents. But you also can’t deny that part of his elevated play is because Deng knows his job is on the line.

This was Chicago’s year to contend for a championship. Deng will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and he was unable to work out a contract extension with Chicago over the summer. The Bulls also want to avoid paying a 32-year-old Carlos Boozer the $16.8 million he’s owed for the 2014-15 season, so they’ll at least consider amnestying him after this season. But with Rose down, Chicago’s front office knows this team can’t compete with the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers, even if the Eastern Conference is so unbelievably bad as a whole. That means the best course of action is rebuilding for Rose’s return.

Luol Deng is the first logical domino to fall during the process of rebuilding. Tom Thibodeau and even general manager Gar Forman have maintained that this team isn’t going to blow up, rebuild, tank or any of that nonsense. But Chicago has already lost four of its last five games without Rose. One loss was a 39-point blowout against a very good team and the other three were all against teams with losing records. At what point do the Bulls look in the mirror and realize rebuilding for Derrick Rose’s return by getting draft picks is more important than staying stubbornly competitive en route to another second-round playoff elimination?

Deng wants to stay in Chicago and I can’t think of anyone affiliated with the Bulls who would pull the trigger on a trade without any remorse or hesitation. But the threat of Deng walking away at the end of the season and the Bulls getting nothing in return for him still looms large with no contract extension in the works. Keeping this roster in tact and just waiting for Rose to come back next season without stockpiling any draft picks would be foolish. Deng knows this and he knows he’d be the subject of trade rumors all season as soon as Rose went down.

Deng is playing inspired basketball for his team and that’s commendable given what they’ve been through in the last few weeks. This team badly needs something positive and nobody wants to see Deng and the Bulls part ways, especially in Chicago. But his recent All-Star numbers are also making it oh so easy for the Chicago Bulls to trade him and get a great deal out of it. And that may end up being the best (and last) thing he could give his team this season.

Tags: Bulls Vs Pelicans Triple OT Bulls Vs Pelicans Triple Overtime Luol Deng Stats Since Derrick Rose's Injury Luol Deng Vs Pelicans 2013 Luol Deng Without Derrick Rose Luol Deng's Stats Without Derrick Rose

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