The Chicago Bulls enter the 2013-14 season with one thing on their minds: an NBA championship. The starting line-up pretty much returns from last season with a front court of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng starts the season healthy and the emergent Jimmy Butler should help provide the Bulls with one of the better back-courts in the NBA too. All of this is combined with long anticipated return of Derrick Rose. Yes, Chicago is most definitely a serious challenger to the Miami Heat in the Eastern conference. However, after this season’s run, the Bulls will have some big decisions to make on their roster in particular relating to the upcoming free agency status of Luol Deng.
Deng is the longest tenured member of this Bulls’ roster having been with the team since 2004-05. His current contract expires at the end of 2013-14 and reports are suggesting that there will be no contract extension talks until the end of this year’s campaign. It is very unlikely that Chicago trades away pieces this season given their ability to seriously contend. That means that Deng is likely to test free agency.
This is an extremely difficult decision. Cold decision making might look at Deng simply as a decent secondary scoring option, who plays good defense and attacks the basket well. He is likely to command a big salary of decent length at the age of 29. Chicago might well look at this situation and think about the difficulty in competing against Deng’s market price and the need for salary cap flexibility in the short and long term.
However, this is a player who is entering his 10th season with the franchise. He will often take on the toughest defensive assignments in terms of the strongest threats from the small forward position notably the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He stepped up offensively in 2012-13 in the absence of Rose and regularly averages in the 16-18 point per game area. He is also strong on the boards and plays with fantastic heart and passion providing a valuable leadership presence on any NBA roster.
It is the identity of this Bulls’ team that possibly offers the strongest argument for trying to retain Deng. That identity of being a tough, physical and excellent defensive team under head coach Tom Thibodeau is exactly what allowed this team to compete last season even in the absence of injured superstar Rose.
Deng is everything that has led Chicago’s revival in the post Michael Jordan era. Only four players have scored more points in Bulls’ basketball history and only four have logged more minutes.
He is a workhorse and plays terrifically well through injury. Deng has led the league in minutes per game during each of the past two seasons. That alone should show just how valuable Thibodeau considers Deng to be.
Noah emerged as the fire and grit last season, Rose is an unquestioned superstar, but maybe just maybe the Bulls would be better off ignoring the mathematics and ‘common sense’ when it comes to Deng. Sometimes being emotional isn’t a bad thing when it comes to professional sports teams and it may just be a regrettable decision if Deng is allowed to walk.
There are two things that we most definitely know as we prepare for the 2013-14 season, which tips off in only a couple of weeks. The Bulls are a serious contender in the Eastern conference and Deng is a crucial part of that. If Chicago do manage to win their first NBA championship since 1998, then Deng will have to be a significant contributor. The second fact is that if the 28-year old does make it to free agency, there will be plenty of teams that come bidding for his services. This will be an interesting story line to watch unfold.