Look, it’s not uncommon for players to get what the fans and media perceive to be overpaid (the camera just cut to Rashard Lewis and Joe Johnson’s agents high fiving each other). Everyone will agree that to play in the NBA, one has to have immense talents. From there, it’s about gauging importance a particular player has to their franchise, which almost supersedes that player’s talent when front office officials are negotiating deals.
Take, for example, a player like Tyson Chandler. Never one to be considered a offensive stalwart, Chandler’s defensive presence and veteran leadership helped secure the Dallas Mavericks their first NBA title last season. After some fruitful negotiations, the Knicks outbid everyone else in the NBA to the tune of $58 million over four seasons. The Knicks have been known to be defensively challenged (and that’s being quite generous) over the last few seasons, so giving Chandler nearly $15 million per season to finally bring some toughness to the Knicks makes sense. To say he earned it is a matter of context.
The same can be said for our very own Luol Deng. Before the 2008-09 season, Deng and the Bulls agreed to a six year extension worth $71 million. Then-Bulls general manager John Paxson made it clear that Deng was a building block, saying, “Signing Luol has always been a priority for this organization and we have always felt that he was a big part of our future. We are very happy that Luol will now be with us long term as we continue to grow as an organization.”
As the season trudged on, Deng had easily his worst statistical season while only appearing in 49 games. The general consensus was the Bulls made a huge mistake investing a lot of time and money on a guy who “had peaked two years earlier.” When Ben Gordon became a free agent the following season, the Bulls let him walk to rival Detroit.
Now that we’re nearly half way through Deng’s contract, I view it as a bargain. He has cemented himself as our second best player on both ends of the floor and has shown time and time again in Derrick Rose’s absence that he can, in fact, lead this team. Last year’s Eastern Conference Finals showed me a lot. Did he have a few loose games on offense? Sure. Did he take some horrible shots? Yeah. Everyone does. What impressed me was Deng’s ability to hamstring LeBron James offensively.
And yeah, we ultimately lost the series. But it wasn’t because of Luol Deng. It was the inability to add variety to our offensive game plan and a lack of a consistent second scoring option. During Deng’s contract, he’s improved his game in every aspect. He can put the ball on the floor and create a shot. His three-point shooting, once a glaring weakness, has improved to the point that he can be no longer left alone. On top of that, he’s being heralded as one of the best defenders at the small forward position (again, just ask LeBron James.)
Ultimately, fans need to understand that Luol Deng has outplayed his commitment to the Bulls. I feel that most people were expecting him to turn into a superstar. They failed to realize that, yeah, maybe he did peak statistically his third season But does that mean he hasn’t improved? That’s the misconception. Deng is the perfect compliment to Derrick Rose, as are Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, new addition Rip Hamilton and the Bench Mob. The problem this season has been injuries, which has created a lack of continuity. That certainly can’t be blamed on Deng. Or his contract. Or anyone’s contract, for that matter.
It all comes down to what I was talking about earlier — a player’s value to his system. It’s why players get overpaid. Think of it this way, though: would you rather have Luol Deng for about $12 million per season or Chris Kaman for $14 million? What about Elton Brand ($17 million), the aforementioned Rashard Lewis ($22 million) or Marcus Camby (nearly $13 million)? I doubt there’s a single person nodding their head. As Bulls fans, we have a lot of things to be excited about. Luol Deng is one of them, along with his contract.