With the league's best record at 16-3, the last thing the Chicago Bulls needed was a significant injury to one of their stars. Although Luol Deng was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his left wrist, the eighth-year veteran opted not to have surgery and, as expected, will rest the injury before attempting to play through the pain.
The 26-year-old small forward told reporters on Tuesday that he suffered the injury in the fourth quarter of the Bulls' 95-89 home victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday night. After that game, Deng brushed it aside and said he would be "fine." But he missed Monday night's 110-95 victory over the New Jersey Nets and Bulls fans suspected his wrist was much worse than he and the team were letting on.
Dating back to the 2009-10 season, Deng had played in 108 straight regular-season games. He won't appear in another one for "a while," according to coach Tom Thibodeau.
"It's basically going to be week-to-week," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "It's his left hand, so it's going to be more of a pain tolerance issue."
"He says there's less pain than there was two days ... so he's already moving in the right direction."
Yet, Deng, who underwent surgery on the same injury on his right hand late in his rookie season, continued to insist that he will recover quickly and has a positive outlook that features him returning to the court.
"I'll be fine, I'll be fine," Deng said. "[I am] definitely disappointed, but it happens. It'll be fine.
"I'm just going to go day by day, see how it feels every day. [I have] just got to get the pain level down right now. It's going to be painful at times, but I'll have to deal with that."
Obviously, the Bulls will miss the 6-foot-9 Deng and won't be the same, dynamic squad without him. He has been playing at an All-Star level this season, averaging 15.9 points, 7.5 rebounds in 38.3 minutes per game while giving the Bulls a strong presence on both ends of the court on a consistent basis. Since Thibodeau took over as coach a season ago, he has relied on Deng as much as, if not more than any other player on his roster, including star point guard Derrick Rose. Under the reigning Coach of the Year, Deng has shed his "injury-prone" tag and, although his stats may not back it up, believes he's playing the best basketball of his career.
"It could always be worse," Deng said of his injury. "Injuries happen ... but it is what it is. It's just what we do from here. But I'm very confident that it'll be fine. It's sore, but the soreness has gone down a lot in two days. So hopefully every day [I will] keep treating it and see if I can get rid of the soreness and just try to be back there as soon as possible."
Deng is not expected to have surgery, which would sideline him for at least two months, and the injury is on his non-shooting hand and apparently won't suffer more damage without surgery. Given his injury history, look for the Bulls to be especially cautious with him. Impressively, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant suffered a similar injury on his right shooting hand during preseason but has played through it by tweaking his jump shot and exhibiting uncanny pain tolerance.
Yes, Deng badly wants to get back on the court. Over the past few years, he has admitted playing in every single regular-season contest is important to him. But he understand the importance of health in what has been an injury-plagued, condensed, 66-game campaign around the NBA.
"I really feel like we have a very good chance of doing something special," Deng told reporters. "And I feel like without the surgery, I'll be fine. I just know what I can do with it and what I can't do. And I really think I'm going to be very effective out there. There's going to be days when it's sore."
Fortunately for the Bulls, they are probably the deepest team in the league and have the reigning MVP. Thibodeau has repeatedly said his team "has more than enough to win with" whenever a key player goes down, and he's been proven right this year. From John Lucas III to C.J. Watson to Mike James to Omer Asik to, yes, Brian Scalabrine, the next man always seems to step up and perform when Thibodeau calls his number.
The Bulls certainly have the pieces to fill the void. Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of Deng on Monday and scored 11 points, will start at small forward with Deng out, beginning on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers. Kyle Korver has played in big minutes in his career and has proven to be a reliable shooter in Chicago. And the Bulls even have rookie Jimmy Butler chomping at the bit for more minutes, while Rip Hamilton could take Deng's spot in the "Bench Mob" lineup. Not to mention that both Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have played much better together lately.
Thibodeau's bunch is comfortable with the current roster and, for now, a move is not imminent. Former NBA champion Fabricio Oberto's Chicago-based agent, Herb Rudoy, refuted reports that the retired center is close to a deal with the Bulls, telling me on Tuesday afternoon that there is "no truth to this."
While the Bulls figure to be in good shape minus Deng in the short-term, there's no question that they will not reach the next level if he's out come playoff time. However, that's the worst-case scenario, and Deng is dead-set on rejoining his teammates on the court in the coming weeks.
"I'm really confident in the fact that I'll be out there, hopefully soon, but I'll be out there," he said.