The Luol Deng Conundrum Part 1: To Trade or Not To Trade

The 2012-13 NBA season was a crazy year for the Chicago Bulls to say the least. Despite a medically-cleared Derrick Rose sitting out the entire season and a slew of missed games from key players (Kirk Hinrich-22, Taj Gibson- 17, Joakim Noah-16) and not so key players (Richard Hamilton-32), the Bulls stuck true to their mantra and fought their way to a 45-37 record. Coach Tom Thibodeau led his team of outcasts into the playoffs as a 5-seed where the entire nation bared witnessed to their grit and grind style.

Thibodeau plotted his X’s and O’s and pushed reserves like Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler into 40 minute per game roles. The Bulls wringed their hearts out as they did all season long to overcome Game 7 in Brooklyn and grab Game 1 against the Miami Heat, all amidst media and fan scrutiny crying for Rose to return. All and all it was an overachieving, yet disappointing roller coaster ride of a season for the Bulls, a trip too taxing for some of players. Hinrich missed eight straight games with a calf injury and Deng missed the final seven games of the playoffs due to complications from a spinal tap procedure he underwent for viral meningitis. The illness was even more debilitating to Deng’s energy than the 48 minute nights he was adored for by Bulls fans as he was hospitalized for days. Deng could ultimately never hit stride and could never fully overcome the sickness, which left the already injury-stricken Bulls even more undermanned. It’s arguable that most, if not all players would have also sat out with Deng’s illness. Regardless, it wasn’t a favorable end of the season for Deng, especially when the Bulls will have to decide his fate this summer.

After forgoing surgery on his wrist last off-season, Deng played with a torn ligament in his left wrist throughout the season. Deng led the league in minutes per game (38.7) for the second consecutive season and also made his second straight All-Star appearance. Despite his nagging wrist injury and huge workload, he only missed seven games in the regular season. While Deng improved his points per game from 15.3 to 16.5, he saw his 3-point jumper go completely array. Deng made one 3-pointer per game shooting 32 percent, a major drop off from 1.5 threes per game at 36.7 percent just a year ago. Deng’s hot spot in 2011-12 on the left wing where he shot 42.9 percent (green area in the first picture) dropped off by almost 11 percent this season and was one of his weakest areas.

 Deng’s 2011-2012 Shot Chart

Shotchart 2

Deng’s 2012-2013 Shot Chart


Deng’s 3-point regression wouldn’t be a concern for a team with a high powered offense, but the Bulls were tied last in points per game and second to last in 3-pointers made last season. Deng’s ability to slash to the basket, shoot off the dribble and create for others still made him an overall plus on the offensive end.

Where Deng really makes his money is on defense and he continues to be a force on that end. Deng is assigned to the opponent’s best wing threat every game and utilizes his length, speed, and aggression to alter shots and cover ground. He also holds his own as a small ball power forward when Carlos Boozer or Gibson slides over to center. The Bulls were actually 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Deng on the court, which is not what you’d expect from a defensive ace. You can take this stat with a grain of salt since he spent 2,903 minutes on court compared to only 1,063 minutes off the court and his back up, Jimmy Butler, also provided plus defense. Deng’s meager Synergy defensive rank of 151st in the league also provides some evidence that Deng might not be entirely irreplaceable on defense. While Deng is clearly valuable, the question remains what should the Bulls do with Deng this offseason?

You can’t analyze Deng’s situation without addressing the emergence of sophomore guard/forward Butler, a.k.a Jimmy G. Buckets. After playing just three minutes in the playoffs last season, Butler played the best basketball of his life this postseason. Butler averaged 13.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while playing 48 minutes in five games. With Deng out Butler was forced to replace some of Deng’s offense by hitting timely spot-up jumpers and getting to the line. On the defensive end, Butler matched up with an assortment of stars from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Butler was rarely overpowered on the defensive end, only showing some difficulty defending James in the post. He held James to a non-LeBron-like 43.8 percent from the field in the series. Almost half of James’s points came from the free throw line (10.4 FTA, 23.6 ppg) in a series where the referees stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

While Butler’s postseason accolades certainly raised his stock, Bulls fans who tuned in during the regular season weren’t exactly shocked by his performance. After letting Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver walk last offseason, Butler took over their minutes and then some on his way to career highs in almost every category. He improved his 3-point percentage form 18.2 percent to 38.1 percent and his field goal percentage from 40.5 percent to 46.7 percent. He also had a career-high 15.26 Player Efficiency Rating, which was remarkably close to Deng’s PER of 15.12. You could throw out as many stats as you want for Butler, but his intangibles are what makes him a Chicago fan favorite. His work ethic, demeanor and scrappiness are astonishing for a 23 year-old. The prospect of Butler playing alongside Rose in years to come has Bulls fans drooling.

Butler is already being donned as Chicago’s shooting guard of the future, but his future might actually be at small forward. Butler played shooting guard only 14 percent of the time compared to playing small forward 37 percent of the time for the Bulls. In comparison, Deng played as much time at power forward as Butler played at shooting guard. Not only did Butler play small forward more frequently than shooting guard, but he also played better at small forward. At shooting guard he had a 13.4 PER and at small forward his rating jumped to 16.4, which was actually 2.1 points better than Deng at that position. Butler improved his jump shot throughout the year and it can be argued that he would be better suited with a full season under his belt at shooting guard. Thus far in his career, he has been the better player at small forward.

If money was a non-issue it would be ideal for the Bulls to run Butler alongside Deng for at least one more season. The Bulls hope to get a full season out of Rose and make a decent run at a title with most of the same supporting cast from this season. Unfortunately money is always an issue as long as Reinsdorf still owns the team. The problem becomes even bigger when the Bulls are due to pay the luxury tax for the first time in team history and are threatened with paying the new repeater tax. Freeing up Deng’s $14.2 million contract would prevent the Bulls from paying the luxury tax again, but would also hurt their chances of contending next season.

The Bulls management faces the same task they encounter each season with the tight-pocketed Reinsdorf; to decide whether to spend money to contend now or cut costs in preparation for the 2014 free agency. The “2014 plan” for the Bulls revolves around Deng’s contract coming off the books along with a possible ending to the albatross contract of Boozer via the amnesty clause, opening up cap room for the Bulls to make a run at a superstar. If the Bulls decide to hold onto Deng, they will once again risk letting one of their marquee players leave for nothing. After the Bulls declined to match the Rocket’s offer sheet for Omer Asik he went on to have a career year in Houston, averaging 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. If the Bulls decide to hold onto Deng and re-sign him next offseason, they’ll have to determine the value of a 29 year-old defensive specialist and decide if he is worth hindering the 2014 plan.  It will not be an easy decision, but if keeping Deng isn’t enough to get the Bulls a title next season, it might be best to get something for him now.

Part Two will cover potential suitors for Luol Deng

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