CHICAGO – Luol Deng was gone from Chicago sooner or later, so the Bulls were simply taking care of business in a responsible and pre-emptive manner when they made sure it was the former Tuesday, trading Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the fungible contract of center Andrew Bynum and several future draft picks.
But… There’s often a but and it’s coming.
Deng and the Bulls already had parted ways, with only the calendar left to make it official. Chicago tried once more over the weekend to sign the two-time All-Star forward to a contract extension – an offer reported to be worth about $30 million over three seasons – and was rebuffed. Deng is determined to test free agency for the first time, convinced his value is closer to the $14.25 million annually he’s making this season. No “hometown discounts” for the Windy City (by way of South Sudan, London and Durham, N.C.) were in the offing.
So the something for which Bulls’ VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman pulled the trade trigger – salary-cap and luxury-tax relief in shedding Deng’s salary (and in cutting Bynum loose immediately) and a parcel of amorphous picks – clearly is better than the nothing they would get back this summer. Better probably, too, than any other offers between now and the February trade deadline.
So no quibble with the move here on that count.
No quibbles, either, about how Bulls’ recuperating MVP Derrick Rose and his camp might react to this veer into “rebuilding,” or how grinding head coach Tom Thibodeau might feel about losing the favorite, all-purpose tool on his belt in Deng.
If not for Rose’s second consecutive season-ending knee injury, the Bulls wouldn’t even have reached this crossroads of now vs. later. By next October, when he’ll try to return again as an elite player, Rose will have been paid about $35 million over two seasons to endure, yes, the physical and mental drudgery of rehab but to play only 10 games before his second knee blowout. That contract – a five-year, 30-percent-of-payroll deal in which the Bulls gave every available dollar – is part of the reason for the cap and tax considerations now.
As for Thibodeau, he and Deng had a solid partnership in which the coach maximized the player’s talents and value at both ends, while Deng did whatever was asked of him – sometimes too much. Injuries followed, along with Deng’s breakdown last spring in which he was hospitalized for spinal-tap complications and took issue with the Bulls’ handling of his room, his doctors and too little TLC from his bosses.
Paxson addressed that head-on Tuesday in a news conference, stating that he and others apologized to Deng over the summer. Yet those close to the 10-year veteran felt it caused a wee more separation from management and made him a little more wary of injuries and overuse this season (Deng missed nine games due to left Achilles soreness, trying to avoid a blowout rather than recover from one later).
Thibodeau? He coaches hard the bodies in uniforms in front of him, which is fine. Anything – like this trade – that makes winning more difficult or, to go to extremes, undesirable isn’t something for which the coach has much time. Even Paxson, in his honest and extended back-and-forth with reporters, acknowledged it, saying “We know what he’s facing. We’re not sitting up here saying, ‘Be happy about it.’ ”
But Thibs isn’t Doc Rivers, either, with a championship ring as a head coach or the lengthy resume of his former Boston boss. Navigating through a rebuild or overhaul or whatever the Bulls eventually label this comes in his job description. It’s his fourth season in charge of a team, he got and still has a better situation than many, and he has room for improvement, too.
OK, here comes the quibble: This won’t help the Bulls when it comes to attracting and signing top free agents.
It will, frankly, have the opposite effect in an area where they already have been underachievers.
And once the dust settles, this Deng trade will become another brick in the wall of Chicago’s player-unfriendly reputation.
Paxson took issue with that characterization Tuesday, but let’s face it, that old Jerry Krause-ism from deep into the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era – “Players don’t win championships. Organizations win championships,” Krause said – still has legs. The perception around the NBA, for a lot of players and their agents, is that Chicago, yes, is a behemoth and a profit monster that packs United Center, boasts plenty of banners and offers an enticing big-market platform for outside interests. But it also is run as top-down as any team in the league, sending messages to the locker room that no one – no player, no coach, not even Jordan in his day – is bigger than the organization.
That message was delivered 10 and 15 years ago by Jordan, Pippen and others to a generation of budding stars such as Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill and lingers to this day. When McGrady and Hill were free agents, Chicago was fine as a place to increase leverage, but did they actually sign there?
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade essentially enacted a similar charade in the summer of 2010, after the Bulls had opened up salary for one or two megastars. Carlos Boozer and a deep bench was a decent fallback position, but as things turned out, it was like finding an Acme tablet under the Christmas tree when you were hoping for an iPad. Then it might as well be underwear.
“I think we treat people fairly, players fairly,” Paxson said, challenging the reputation when it was raised. “I think we have a good way of going about our business.”
The only way to prove that, in the wake of waving goodbye to Deng (who did get a six-year, $71 million deal from the Bulls in 2008), his character and his “glueness” will be to turn all this talk about The Future into something tangible and game-changing for the present. If not James next summer in, sure, a way-way-way-long shot, then stashed Euro Nikola Mirotic and a notable second addition. Then something creative, say, for Kevin Love in 2015.
Paxson talked up the merits of depth and building with Rose rather than leaning on him so much, especially given the unknowns of his game going forward. But he also said: “Let’s face it, the league is a superstar league.”
Beyond Rose and the improbable fall of Ping-Pong balls in 2008, Chicago has been in search of one since 1998, when its titles ended and its management reputation lived on. Finishing multiple times as a bridesmaid in free agency, assiduously avoiding the luxury tax until last year, flushing out the Bench Mob from 2010-11 and 2011-12 for more affordable options, turning what was promised to be a basketball decision on Omer Asik into a financial one, even enabling Rose’s decision not to try a comeback last March or April – all recent examples of business first, winning second.
And now this trade. Some day, it might be the beloved Rose. After all, the respect and genuine affection with which Paxson, Thibodeau and regular ol’ staffers spoke of Deng as a player and, more so, as a person was hard to reconcile with the fact that nonetheless he is gone. He didn’t get an extension prior to the season. And other than by Thibs, he always seemed a little more valued from the outside – the East coaches picking All-Star subs, Kobe Bryant nixing any deal that sent Deng back to L.A. – than from the inside or even the UC stands.
Look, it’s a business for all 30 teams and for 400 players. It’s a business for the agents and the coaches and the media, too, and for everyone else who isn’t shelling out for tickets. Some franchises cloak it better than others. Some that try to buffer that for players wind up getting burned by their conglomerate/athletes. Some segment of the NBA fan base is even good with it all, focused always on what’s next and myriad options rather than the human beings on the court, in the jerseys, on the sideline.
But trades like Deng’s and days like Tuesday shine a harsh light on that, when the sport and passion and emotions benefit more from softer glows. And the Bulls are out there in the glare more than most. Anyone who doesn’t think their bottom-line approach strips the grout away from the tiles, loosening the already tenuous bonds of team and common goals, doesn’t much value intangibles in the first place.
Deng’s and Bynum’s contracts, as they say, were expiring assets. Well, we’re all expiring assets, but it’s no fun being reminded of it.