Luol Deng looks like a polarizing force in Chicago, where coach Tom Thibodeau is reportedly much more enamored with the 10th-year small forward than the front office is. Deng apparently remains somewhat bitter over the failure of extension talks this past offseason, and acknowledges that the likelihood he’ll be traded increased when Derrick Rose suffered his latest season-ending injury.
Deng, at 28, is averaging career highs in points and assists, and is close to his career-best mark in rebounds per game. A player who is experiencing such success in the prime of his career doesn’t usually find himself on the trade block. That’s nonetheless the situation he appears to be in, with the latest rumor connecting him to the Cavaliers in talks for Dion Waiters. Deng has never played with any other franchise and says he wants that to continue to be the case until he retires, but Deng’s agent, Herb Rudoy, insists his client will test free agency in the summer. Rival executives have estimated Deng’s market value to be anywhere between $11MM and $14MM, and if he continues his strong play this season, he could wind up on the high side of that range. That could have the cost-conscious Bulls scrambling to find some kind of return for him by the trade deadline instead of watching him depart for nothing in the summer.
The Bulls front office is reportedly enamored with Jimmy Butler, and there’s plenty to like. He’s shown ability on both sides of the ball and is averaging 4.8 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game, not shabby for a 6’7″ shooting guard. Best of all, he’s on a bargain rookie deal this season and next, though Chicago will have to decide on an extension this coming offseason. It’s easy to see how the Bulls could let Deng walk and insert Butler as their starting small forward, making do with a cheap replacement at shooting guard as they’ve done in the recent past with Keith Bogans and Richard Hamilton. Still, deleting a long-tenured Thibodeau favorite who’s made the last two All-Star Games isn’t a move most championship contenders would make.
Bulls management is privately expressing intent to re-sign Deng this summer, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, but that may be easier said than done. The Bulls have about $64.1MM committed for 2014/15, not including salaries for their own 2014 first-round pick and the first-rounder that could come their way via the Bobcats. That plus a potential Nikola Mirotic signing could add about $4MM to their commitments. Take away $16.8MM with an amnesty of Carlos Boozer‘s contract, and the Bulls are left with $51.3MM, leaving plenty of room under the projected $75.7MM tax threshold for a new Deng contract. The thornier problem is 2015/16, when the Bulls would have roughly the same amount of existing commitments. That would be the first year of a new, potentially lucrative contract for Butler, demonstrating the possible either-or choice the Bulls face.
Chicago just paid its first luxury tax bill in 2012/13, and I’d be surprised if the team made it a habit. That will probably motivate GM Gar Forman and company to get what they can for Deng at the deadline. The Bulls are reportedly looking for a steal, prioritizing a young player and draft picks, if they trade Deng to an Eastern Conference team. Waiters is a depressed asset who hasn’t lived up to the promise the Cavs saw in him when they drafted him fourth overall last year. Cleveland would have throw more into that deal to make the salaries match, but there could be a workable trade there, at least from Chicago’s standpoint. Waiters would represent the sort of cheap shooting guard option the Bulls have had success with in the past, but unlike Bogans and Hamilton, he’d have upside. I’m not sure if he’d qualify as a steal, at least at this point, but he is a young player who might turn into one.
Of course, if Rose comes back from injury for the playoffs, that could change Chicago’s equation, putting the team back in the title hunt. Perhaps the Bulls would trade with Indiana for Danny Granger, a deal that could give the Bulls a potentially useful veteran player who could help them this season and might be willing to re-sign on the cheap this summer. That’s just my speculation, of course. But financial constraints require creativity, and a that’s what will be required of the Bulls to pull off the right sort of Deng trade.