Luol Deng fits the profile of the rare veteran eligible for a contract extension who might actually sign one. He could be overlooked among the impressive potential class of free agents next summer if he allows his contract to expire, which may make it difficult to secure a long-term deal. Still, he remains a valuable player for the Bulls, the only NBA club he's ever suited up for. Those are conditions that generally favor extension talks, and indeed, Chicago GM Gar Forman says he's begun to discuss an extension for Deng, even though Deng's agent, Herb Rudoy, denies any such conversations have taken place.
The 27-year-old delivers on both ends of the floor, often using his 7-foot wingspan to help him shut down the opposing team's best wing player in Tom Thibodeau's vaunted defense while averaging 16.0 points per game for his career on the other end. He exceeded that mark slightly in 2012/13, when he poured in 16.5 PPG, and added a new wrinkle last season, averaging a career high 3.0 assists per game in the absence of the injured Derrick Rose. He's incorporated the three-pointer into his arsenal since Thibodeau has been his coach, knocking down 35.8% of his 3.1 long-range attempts per game the past three seasons, even though he had an off year from behind the arc in 2012/13.
Last season ended in frightening fashion for Deng, who fell ill and had a spinal tap to test for meningitis. The spinal tap caused a life-threatening infection, knocking him out of the playoffs but thankfully subsiding so he could recover this summer. It was a rare absence from the court for Deng, who not only led the league in minutes per game the past two seasons, but appeared in 89.1% of his team's regular season and playoff games the last four years. Deng has shown durability in the face of taxing minutes and Thibodeau's demanding defensive schemes, and, at 28, he doesn't show signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The South Sudanese native shows up to play, but the emergence of Jimmy Butler last season might have helped fuel Chicago's exploratory talks with the Wizards about swapping Deng for the No. 3 pick and Emeka Okafor. Forman and executive VP of basketball ops John Paxson may also have been influenced by statistics that say the Bulls were better when Deng was off the court last season than when he was on it. Chicago outscored its opponents by 0.9 points when Deng wasn't on the floor, and the team was outscored by 0.2 points when Deng was playing, per NBA.com. Even though Deng played nearly 75% of the 3,966 regular season minutes he possibly could have, that still leaves about 1,000 minutes when he wasn't on the floor, indicating a sample size large enough for study. Of course, the stat isn't infallible — it doesn't account for the other four guys on the floor with him, nor does it factor in the lineups other teams are countering with. Still, it suggests that Deng isn't a linchpin for the team's success. Indeed, the same measurement shows the Bulls were better off without Deng on the floor in 2011/12, too.
Executives around the league have pegged Deng's market value at anywhere between $11MM and $14MM. Deng is entering the final season of a somewhat backloaded six year, $71.06MM contract that he signed under the old collective bargaining agreement. He'd be limited to a five-year deal from the Bulls in free agency under the current CBA, and he can only tack on three extra years via an extension. Just as he couldn't match the length of his current deal, he'd also be hard-pressed to equal his $14.215MM salary for this season. Productive players in their prime don't often take significant paycuts, so that might drive Rudoy and Deng away from the bargaining table in hopes that Deng can land a deal worth closer to $14MM than $11MM in free agency.
Chicago's willingness to entertain the idea of trading Deng for a package headlined by the No. 3 pick in a weak draft may show that the team isn't going to consent to an extension for Deng unless it involves a hefty reduction in salary. News of extension talks came out a day after the trade rumor, which might simply mean the Bulls are trying to offer an olive branch to a long-tenured part of their team. Weeks later, Forman said conversations about an extension were continuing, perhaps with the Bulls hoping that Deng would become anxious and accept the guarantee of long-term money rather than play out the season and risk serious injury or a decline in performance. That doesn't seem likely in this case, given Deng's track record of durability, as well as his consistency. Some of the trappings of what makes veteran extensions happen are there with Deng and the Bulls, but I don't think they're enough for a deal.