CHICAGO – LeBron James would have to get past the flaming jerseys, the Comic Sans and the instant chasm that opened between him and Dan Gilbert, owner of the team for which he performed and amassed profits for the first seven NBA seasons.
Luol Deng would have his own set of baggage with which to grapple if he were to consider returning to the team that drafted him 10 years ago.
Putting to the test the old Thomas Wolfe-inspired aphorism “You can’t go home again” might seem quaint when the likes of Jason Kidd and others involved in last week’s Brooklyn-Milwaukee sleight of hand kept repeating “this is business”. But then, this is business, so maybe – somehow, some way – James can go back to Cleveland. And Deng can go back to Chicago.
While the former possibility (however slight) has the NBA and its fan base intrigued, maybe even fixated, the latter is generating nary a peep in the vast Chicagoland sports media market. Despite all those airwave hours and blank Web pages to fill, the idea that Bulls VP John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman would turn to the third-most desirable small forward in 2014 free agency (after James and Carmelo Anthony) seems to captivate no one.
The Bulls claim to be committed to goosing the roster and changing the movie of Derrick Rose‘s second major comeback from knee surgery in as many years. But the prospect of bringing back Deng, the two-time All-Star who toiled longer and harder than any Bulls player over the past decade, hasn’t garnered a blip on the radar.
Blame the baggage. The steamer trunk in that set came in January, when the Bulls came at Deng with a 1-2 punch in a hurried-up bit of contract-extension negotiating. They offered him a reported three-year, $30 million deal that wasn’t so much take it-or-leave it as it was take it-or-leave US; when Deng declined, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for draft picks and payroll relief via Andrew Bynum‘s contract.
It was an abrupt parting considering all Deng and the Bulls had been through together, his status as one of the team’s leaders, his skill set and the way Tom Thibodeau relied on him every way an NBA coach can. The locker room shook that day, emotional center Joakim Noah went into a temporary funk and, on the heels of Rose’s latest injury six weeks earlier, it looked like a tank job and felt even worse.
Being banished to the Cavaliers was no prize for Deng, either. His production and enjoyment faltered, and the “the Bulls don’t miss Deng” stories coming out of Chicago didn’t help. (They were 10-13 with Deng, 38-21 without or after him.)
“It appeared uglier than it was,” said agent Ron Shade, who works with Chicago-based Herb Rudoy. “Luol is a professional, so what happened if January is forgiven but not forgotten.”
Shade recalled hearing Paxson’s news conference on his car radio the day Deng was dealt – the emotion in the Bulls exec’s voice struck him, as did the sincerity he and Forman showed when apologizing to the player for the team’s handling of his botched spinal tap during the 2013 playoffs. And yes, the Bulls have called since July 1.
“Like I say, Luol is a professional,” Shade said. “He will hear every reasonable option and give it serious thought. We won’t close any door on that possibility at all.”
The trickiest part for both Deng and the Bulls is that nothing has changed financially. He still believes he’s worth $12 million to $13 million annually, pegged to Josh Smith‘s (four years, $54 million) and Andre Iguodala‘s (four years, $48 million) last summer. When the Bulls talked extension last summer, they were in the $8 million to $9 million range (Deng just wrapped up a six-year, $71 million deal signed in 2008). When Chicago offered $10 million, they cut the length to three seasons. So it never got close to happening.
But that three-year, $30 million number, made so public, has become a set point that complicates the situation. If Deng accepts it now, some will characterize that as “crawling back” on the Bulls’ terms. If Paxson and Forman sweeten the deal, it might be portrayed that they “caved” and are scrambling to make up for their inability to woo Anthony.
In sheer pragmatic terms, the Bulls could do worse than Deng. He knows their system and fits into everything Chicago wants to do. His versatility enables him to fit just about anywhere, though it quietly and inadvertently argues against him being a “star.”
Deng gets his points without plays being called for him. He’s capable of many things but dominant at none, and if a team is a serious contender, he probably should be its third-best player. With the Bulls, he often was pressed into action as No. 2 to Rose and more, when the explosive point guard was out. Even if he rejoined Chicago, its offense needs another go-to scorer.
Meanwhile, Deng has options and offers that could increase once James and Anthony make up their minds. He met on July 4 with Miami’s Pat Riley and was told Monday, through Rudoy, that the Heat’s agreements with Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger don’t lessen their interest in Deng.
Deng spoke with Clippers coach/exec Doc Rivers last week and had conversations this week with Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer and Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld. Dallas, Toronto and the Lakers also are said to be interested.
It’s a game of musical chairs with special rules: LeBron and ‘Melo get to sit down first while the music still is playing. Then Deng, Trevor Ariza, Gordon Hayward and others will scramble with urgency – but probably still robust deals from anxious teams – for the remaining seats.
“We knew, starting with the whole process, that this LeBron thing, this Carmelo thing probably would drag out,” Shade said. “It’s very fluid at this point. We’re not desperately eager at all – the money’s not going to go anywhere. We would be nervous if the phones were not ringing.”