Fans don't love or hate players. They love and hate teams. They love and hate performances. Michael Jordan was the greatest to ever play the game, but once he was a Wizard, the majority of his fans probably weren't looking to tune in every game to watch him struggle through knee injuries. And Luol Deng is no Michael Jordan.
However, he is the nicest player I've ever met, and one of
the best people guys in all of sports. There's no reason anyone
should ever hate Luol the person. He's a great guy, he's interesting
to talk to. He's honest and insightful when talking about basketball or worldly views. He's intelligent, interesting, and oh yeah, he's making about five million more than fans think he deserves on the basketball court.
Everyone loved Deng a couple of years ago. Back when he was still the great guy, but he was also the great guy on the cheap rookie deal performing at a high level. A combination of a great contract negotiations on his part and poor luck with his health have left him a marked man in the eyes of fans. It's hard to blame them. They see his contract getting in the way. They see one of the few threes in the league that's not shooting three pointers or kill his opponent off the dribble.
Deng's game relies on movement and mid range jumpers. It's a game that's more subtle when effective because he creates his shot by finding openings on the floor or making nice cuts to the basket. It looks like Deng just finishes open looks, but he works hard to create those open looks. He's a finesse player who can create offense without the ball, something all teams need. .
In preseason, Deng's making all the right cuts and moves to the basket only to be blocked by players or the rim. His finishes are frequently a bit short, and the high percentage shots he's creating for himself are going in the hoop a low percentage of the time. He looks to have finally found his spots in Vinny Del Negro's offense, but his body hasn't allowed him to take advantage yet.
If he can regain his leg strength then I think we'll see a return of the high efficiency off the ball player we can all enjoy. If not, he'll be the scorn of fans, the butt of jokes, and hated throughout the diehard fan base.
While I don't think it's fair, I understand it. I was captain of the "trade Andres Nocioni" bandwagon, and he was in a similar boat. A guy who bled Chicago Bulls basketball, but signed an extension too large and delivered performance too low thereafter. Though I was happy to see the Bulls get out from under his contract, I'll always root for him as an individual.
So that leads us to the obvious question. What should the Bulls do with Luol Deng?
There are those who think his value can't get any lower, so there's no sense in doing anything right now. I disagree. Right now, the Bulls could probably unload him for an expiring contract.
Crazy you say? No, not really. First, you have to realize that every year there are GM's out there who are making moves for their job. They need a short term impact move even if it hurts them long term. Luol Deng for a guy who can't do anything is a short term positive for any team.
Also, his contract isn't as bad as people think. 30% of his money is deferred. This means a team which is cash strained can fill up it's cap while not immediately having to pay the money owed. Say they trade an expiring for Deng that's the same size, they'll save three million in immediate cash.
Now if Luol continues to struggle even unloading him for an expiring may prove impossible.
Still, what's the upside in moving him for an expiring?
1) It makes the team worse.
2) That makes it less attractive to start 2010 free agents
3) We aren't likely to make use of the financial savings in the next two seasons.
Point #3 seems conter intuitive, and I could certainly be wrong on this one of course. However, losing Deng for an expiring won't be enough to get us 2 max FAs, and to be quite honest, if the cast here is Rose, Kirk, Noah, Gibson, Johnson, then we'll be lucky to bring in anyone good.
In fact, losing Deng probably makes us more likely to vastly overpay Joe Johnson, David Lee, or Carlos Boozer. I've written about it extensively, but look at 2010 as the year team's go crazy stupid adding decent players at massive prices. There's still too many teams with money and not enough really great players available. Especially if a couple stay with their present teams.
So if we can't benefit from Deng's salary cap space in the next two seasons, then what is the real benefit here? He'd still be under contract for three more years after that, but that's a long way off. These are the tough decisions management has to make, but I'm not a believer in moving Deng because if he continues to play poorly you may have some negative impact three or four years from now.
Granted, if you wait three or four years from now and Deng has never regained his strength you'll be stuck with him at that point for sure. On the other hand, if he's a productive, if overpaid, player then he'll still be easily tradeable. There are always teams willing to take productive, yet expensive, players. Zach Randolph's been moved three times in the past two seasons.
So I'd certainly shop Luol Deng if someone was interested. However, I'm not ready to give him away. I see his presence on the roster helping our 2010 recruiting pitch rather than harming it. I agree that he's overpaid, and with the Bulls concern over the luxury tax they can only afford so many overpaid guys. Still, I simply don't see the short term benefit of moving him without talent coming back.