The Deng Dilemma
Few Chicago athletes of this generation have ever had me at “Hello.” Brian Urlacher, Derrick Rose, Anthony Rizzo – they qualify. But Luol Deng? He certainly did not. Although I hated Duke, he was a great talent out of college, and in all honesty, I was quite satisfied when the Phoenix Suns agreed to draft him with the 7th pick and then trade him to Chicago.
During the first three seasons of his career, Deng continued to get better and transformed himself from a somewhat raw offensive talent into a very reliable, very productive NBA small forward, improving his field goal percentage from 43.4% to 51.7% over that span. But once the 2007-08 season came around, I started to lose trust in Deng, as he rejected a pretty generous contract extension, missed 19 games because of a lingering Achilles injury and saw a dip in his numbers across the board, including minutes (37 mpg in 06-07 to 33 mpg in 07-08).
By the end of the 2008-09 season, I began to genuinely dislike Deng. He had signed a major six-year contract extension worth $71 million before the season started, yet ended up missing 33 games plus the playoffs due to some mysterious injury. At that point, I self-proclaimed myself as the conductor of the “Luol Deng is a Straight Up Pussy” bandwagon, and many people started hopping aboard. I personally felt that Luol had no interest in trying or caring, and I looked at him as another one of those athletes that got his money and just said “f**k it.” I wanted him out of Chicago, and I wanted him out fast.
The 2009-10 season proved to be a decent turnaround for Lu, but it wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, after the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, that I did a complete 180. Deng has been a different player since then. He’s led the NBA in minutes per game two of the past three seasons (and finished fourth in the other), he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012 as well as the last two all-star teams, and he’s battled through literally every injury he’s been plagued with. Now a premiere small forward in the league, Deng is considered the ultimate glue guy. His work ethic is one in which you cannot teach, he’s as tough, mentally and physically, as they come, and he has made himself invaluable to the success of the Chicago Bulls. Call me crazy, but there are few athletes, if any, that I currently love more than Luol Deng, and I can’t imagine him in another uniform – it’d be devastating.
But let’s be honest – the Bulls cap situation going into next season is nothing short of horrendous, as evidenced by this fantastic cap breakdown. Since you’re probably too lazy to click on that link and read what’s within, allow me to sum it up: the Bulls are already into the luxury tax with just eight players (Rose, Boozer, Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Butler, Teague) plus the likely Rip Hamilton buyout. Eight players, as you know, isn’t going to cut it, since each NBA team kinda needs at least 13 players on its roster. The 20th overall pick is going to cost $1.472 million by itself, and minimum salary players will cost another $884K each. By now, you hopefully get the point – there is basically no flexibility and no hope for any significant free agent signings this summer. Nate Robinson ain’t coming back, and the chances of a Marco Belinelli re-signing are slim to none. If Cheap Ass Reinsdorf can’t stomach this already uncomfortable salary cap situation, what in god’s name can be done to relieve it?
Insert the Cleveland Cavaliers. They happen to have the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts (stardom-wise) in recent memory. There’s a lot of depth, but to even the most casual of basketball fans, no one screams potential superstar. Cleveland is as open as any organization will ever be to trading that pick away, and what they desperately need is a scoring small forward with veteran experience and the ability to anchor a defense. Luol Deng fits that bill perfectly. However, a two-time all-star isn’t going to be enough to covet the first overall pick. Throw in an asset like Marquis Teague to back up Kyrie Irving and the 20th overall pick? Now we’re talking.
If I’m Chris Grant (Cleveland’s GM), I’m thinking long and hard about this deal. My team just invested the fourth overall pick last year on a shooting guard in Dion Waiters, so why would I want to make that situation even more complicated by drafting Ben McLemore? Sure, I could draft Nerlens Noel and stash him for a year while he recovers from ACL surgery, but what good will that do? We have Anderson Varejao locked up through 2015, plus we’ll be atrocious again next season yet have no chance at winning another lottery (you know, because it’s rigged and all), meaning Andrew Wiggins will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
If I’m Gar Forman, I’m not even thinking about this deal – I’m ready to sign some papers. Not because I don’t want Deng anymore – it would be heartbreaking at first to see him go – but because it’ll make Jerry Reinsdorf get down on his hands and knees thanking me for coming up with a genius way to save him money, and because of two words that every basketball fan will likely be muttering in their dreams in a few years: Victor Oladipo.
Call me biased towards my precious Hoosiers – I don’t care. Victor Oladipo will be the best player to come out of this draft when it’s all said and done for three reasons, and nothing anyone can say or do before June 27th will convince me otherwise:
- His unfathomable work ethic and energy
Before Oladipo took the college basketball world by storm last season, he wasn’t what one would consider a household name. In three short years, he went from an under-recruited player in high school known for throwing down hellacious dunks in the backyard of my fraternity house (in jeans, mind you) and failing to crack ESPN’s top 100 recruiting rankings to National Player of the Year candidate and potential top-three draft pick. He is the epitome of a gym rat, having spent hours and hours upon end working on his game and improving upon his significant weaknesses. His first two seasons at IU saw him combine for 18/74 from three; in his junior season, he made 30 of 68 threes, good for 44.1%. He led all guards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, with a 60% field goal percentage. He won Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.2). Oladipo is always hungry, constantly trying to raise his game and making the players around him better. He’s the full package, and that much can’t be said about most of the players in this draft.
- Nothing phases him
When the lights are on and the drunken fans are screaming, Oladipo rises to the occasion. Check out these stat lines:
vs. MSU: 21 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 blocks (WIN)
@OSU: 26 points on 8/10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals (WIN)
@MSU: 19 points on 7/11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 steals with the go-ahead put back, dunk and free throws in the final minute, albeit on a sprained left ankle (WIN)
@Michigan for the Big Ten title: 14 points, 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive (WIN)
vs. Temple in Round of 32: 16 points, 8 rebounds and the heroic game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left (WIN)I can keep going, but you get the picture: Oladipo thrives in big moments, a characteristic that almost always translates well at the professional level.
- The writing is on the wall
A number of GMs have said that Oladipo is hands down their favorite player in the draft. As one GM said, “I know he’s the one guy in this draft that my head coach would love to have right now. He’s an impressive young man on and off the court.” Chad Ford noted that GMs are impressed by his mixture of candor and intensity in interviews. Another GM stated, “Athletically he’s so gifted. And he combines that with hard work both in the game and in practice. He keeps working on his game and getting better. His attitude was just special in the interview we had. He’s humble, but confident. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when he speaks he sounds like a leader.” And the best quote of all from Will Perdue (added to this post on 6/7):
“If you’re talking about the guy who is going to come in and be the most effective player from day one, it’s Oladipo. He’s got that ‘It’ Factor,” that it takes to be successful in the league. A lot of guys in this draft don’t have that. There’s no doubt he plays with an edge. Watching him play defense this season, I wouldn’t have any hesitation putting him into an NBA game and letting him guard Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant from day one. I think he’s that good defensively.”
Honestly, what more needs to be said?
Turning Deng, Teague and the 20th pick into Oladipo will do two things for the Bulls:
- It will save them a little over $12 million in cap space for the 2013-14 season (Deng’s $14.125M + Teague’s $1.075M + 20th pick’s $1.135M minus Oladipo’s $4.287M), getting them to roughly $10 million under the projected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million (Cleveland is roughly $15 million under that threshold at this point in time). What does this mean? They can potentially make a run at the highly sought after shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, and fill the rest of the roster out with minimum salary players, giving them, if all goes as planned, a projected starting lineup of Rose, Oladipo, Butler, Boozer, and Noah, with Mayo, Hinrich, and Gibson to round out a fantastic eight-man rotation. How realistic a scenario like this is, I’m not sure. But it does make sense for both the Bulls and Cavs, and if the Bulls aren’t able to sign an impactful free agent this summer, they’ll have all the flexibility in the world next summer, with Carlos Boozer likely to be amnestied just in time for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic and an extremely deep 2014 free agent class.
- That very class, plus the resurgence of Deng’s protegé, Jimmy Butler, has suddenly made Deng expendable. A deal like this will free up Butler and allow him to take over as the small forward of the future, all while replacing Lu with Luol Deng 2.0 in Victor Oladipo, a relentless defender with the versatility to guard multiple positions and enormous upside. Although his offensive game lacks a true foundation at this point, his shooting has still improved tremendously, he’s one of the best finishers around the rim due to his unparalleled athleticism and body control, and he’s a fantastic rebounder for his position.
Heading into the season with the current roster plus a healthy Derrick Rose should hopefully be enough to beat Miami next year, but the end of Luol Deng’s contract is very near, and given Chicago’s terrible cap situation, either trading him or letting him walk in free agency may be inevitable. Trading Deng is something that would really hit Bulls fans where it hurts, but if we can replace him with Tom Thibodeau’s ideal type of player in Oladipo as the first overall pick in the draft AND give them major cap room flexiblity, it’s something that management should at least consider bringing up to Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert over the next few weeks.
Posted on June 6, 2013, in Bulls and tagged ben mclemore, Chris grant, Cleveland cavaliers, Gar Forman, Jerry Reinsdorf, Luol Deng, NBA draft, nerlens noel, victor oladipo. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.