Last week, it was made known that the Chicago Bulls and Luol Deng were no longer engaged in talks concerning a contract extension. Now Deng is set to become a free agent this upcoming summer. Despite his nine years of service, versatility, and reliability, the Bulls are making the right decision in allowing him to explore the world of free agency.
Chicago will surely lose a valuable player if Deng really is set to leave, but even so, they have a great replacement for him in Jimmy Butler. Butler had a breakout season last year, and it all began when he was filling in for Deng.
On January 19, Butler replaced Deng in the starting lineup for his first career start. During that game, the then second-year small forward played nearly 48 minutes. Those minutes were productive ones too, as Butler put up a near double-double of 18 points and eight rebounds. To go along with that, he added three assists and three steals.
From then on, Butler continued to prove he has what it to takes to make it in the NBA. On offense, the most important thing a player can do beside Derrick Rose is shoot. Butler's shot has improved dramatically since joining the league as he now hits 38% of his threes. His volume needs to improve, but the stroke is improving.
And on defense? You'd be hard pressed to find someone who defends LeBron James better than Butler did in the playoffs. Deng's most important role on the Bulls is defense, and Butler is ready to take over in that regard.
Remember, we have to consider Deng's excessive playing time. Last season, Deng led the league in minutes played with 38.7 per game. Although Deng's time on the court is a concern, getting someone to take those minutes is not. Butler played 40-plus minutes in 24 games last season, and of those 24 games, seven of them came in the playoffs.
There has to be a reason Deng hasn't received an extension yet. Perhaps the Bulls wonder if he can sustain that type of load physically. He's 28 now, right around the peak of most athletes. He has nowhere to go but down, and the Bulls certainly don't want to pay him big money if he can't play the role he's had for the past several years. If they have doubts about him physically, it makes sense to replace him with younger blood.
Butler is a clear choice to replace Deng if that time does indeed come, but the question remains: if Butler replaces Deng, who replaces Butler? The obvious answer is incoming rookie Tony Snell, a 6-foot-7 small forward with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. A wingspan of that size offers so much potential defensively, not to mention he is also known as a shooter. So with a rising star in Butler and another potential role player in Snell, the Bulls would be set to cover up Deng's absence.
Remember, part of what kept the Bulls in contention last year when Derrick Rose was out was the combination of both Butler and Deng on the perimeter. Having one perimeter stopper is great, but when you have two you can cut off the head of an entire offense. With Tom Thibodeau as his coach, Snell will have a chance to become that kind of stopper. He played that role at New Mexico, where his Lobos earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, and now he has take on that role in the NBA.
If the Bulls can make a trade in which they can get something worth Deng's departure, they should do it.
The Bulls made the right decision by not extending Deng's contract. Butler and Snell have potential, and they are worth the sacrifice of losing Deng. This isn't to say he's not worth keeping, but that's the thing. He's been an All-Star talent and a great leader, and other teams are willing to pay a premium for those things.
But the season still hasn't even started. Chicago could still trade him. Deng's name has been coming up in trade rumors for years; they're probably not going to stop now. If the Bulls can make a trade in which they can get something worth Deng's departure, they should do it. After all, what team would get rid of a player that valuable for nothing without at least trying to get something in return? It just wouldn't make sense.
The reliability Deng has provided the Bulls has been a blessing. Everyone talks about Derrick Rose and how grateful and lucky Chicago was to get him, but give Deng the credit he deserves too. He has done so much for the team over the past nine seasons. It just seems likely that his tenure in Chicago is coming to end, and if that is so, that will be heartbreaking.
If he wants to go somewhere else, he should, because Deng deserves to do what he wants. It will all be okay if that does happen though, because the team will be in good hands with Butler taking the challenge of replacing him.