By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Luol Deng is tremendously important to the Bulls, which is why they should avoid signing him to another long-term extension.
It's counterintuitive, I know, but hear me out.
First, do not mistake any of this as something lacking full awareness of Deng's combination of talent and professionalism. His statistical accomplishments are clear, his dedication unquestioned, his two-time All-Star status well-earned. He is a fine player.
Yet nobody better represents the essence of the team over the last nine years than he: consistently competitive, defensively sound, and maximizing every last resource, only to be exposed as not quite elite when the outcomes matter most. The commitment to him has been one to the assurance of quality at the expense of greater possibility.
Deng is a coach's dream, and Tom Thibodeau has been living it. He has ridden Deng hard, piling up his NBA-leading minutes-per-game averages in the last two seasons by making him part of the starting and finishing units, while keeping him in to lead the first four off the bench. He has been paid accordingly, currently earning $14.275 million in the last year of his contract.
Any coach can be forgiven for developing an addiction to a versatile forward who can defend more than one position, hit three-point shots, rebound, move intuitively without the ball, and run the floor. They don't come around often.
He's still not that guy, though, the other dynamic star, to be paired with Derrick Rose that changes the Bulls' proximity to a championship. That guy's not here yet.
Some feel that the return of Rose coincides with the assumed erosion of the Miami Heat to provide a genuine shot to shatter the playoff glass ceiling this season. If Gar Forman sees enough by midseason to make that bet – no matter the recent proof of the fool's gold that is regular-season success -- he can stand pat and ride it out, making a decision on Deng's future in the summer, after they have taken one more run at Lebron James. The fortified, motivated Pacers and one-last-roundup Nets are now in the picture, too.
Flexibility for 2014 has been prioritized, however, and rightly so. Forman has been clear about keeping options open for a bold move if there's one to be made.
Deng is a solid asset with an expiring deal, making him a highly desirable commodity at the trade deadline. That possibility disappears if he is extended, and a team hamstrung by salary-cap and luxury-tax burdens would remain so encumbered, even if the amnesty provision is used to jettison Carlos Boozer.
One could look at Deng's busy nine seasons and marvel at the fact that he's still only 28 years old, with plenty of prolific days ahead. Another could see the 26,000 minutes including his 48 playoff games, his added international workload and injury history, and wonder how soon the inevitable decline occurs.
Rose isn't getting younger either, and his high-impact game comes with its own inherent risks. Surrounding him with jump-shooters and willing defenders has only gotten them high win totals from Halloween through mid-April, before their lack of another double-team-commanding scorer has been exploited.
It may take a different recipe to achieve something more significant than they have, and that's why Forman is right to wait before locking in big dollars for a player who affects games more in the aggregate than in the specific, high-leverage moments that determine winners and losers.
Deng is what the Bulls have been. Really good, but not yet good enough.
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