By Mike McGraw
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First in a series
There's a chance the Bulls will take a good look at Luol Deng's trade value this summer.
Of the five players with large, long-terms salaries on the books, he has the only one that expires in 2014. In theory, if the Bulls could break up Deng's salary into smaller pieces, it would give them the financial flexibility to make other moves.
At the same time, it's tough to ignore what he's meant to the team. Drafted in 2004, the Bulls were a complete disaster in the first six seasons of the post-championship era. But since Deng arrived, they've made the playoffs eight times in nine seasons. He's also been an all-star the past two years.
So while it's natural to view Jimmy Butler as a potential Deng replacement, a better idea is to peg Butler and Deng as the wing tandem for the foreseeable future.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau obviously caught onto this idea during the season. Two defensive-minded, team-oriented, versatile scorers -- they fit perfectly into Thibodeau's style of basketball.
Rather than view Deng's expiring contract, worth $14.3 million this season, as payroll relief, the Bulls should try to lock him up at a more reasonable salary. If something around $10 or $11 million per season is agreeable, the Bulls should still have the means to tinker with the roster in 2014.
Deng turned 28 last month, so he's heading into the prime of his career; an ideal complement for a championship contender built around Derrick Rose.
Statistically, Deng's scoring average peaked at 18.8 points per game in his third NBA season. This year, he averaged 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, while shooting a relatively low 42.6 percent from the field overall.
Those are good numbers, but not worth $14 million per season. That's why re-signing Deng at a smaller salary should be a winning plan for both sides. Is he going to get a better offer than $50 million over five years on the open market next summer?
Interest, either through trade or free agency, might come from teams like Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, Houston or Utah that want to add a veteran presence to a young roster and also have no long-term small forward. It's possible some of those teams will have money to spend next year, so letting him become an unrestricted free agent in 2014 would be a risk. The two sides can talk about an extension in the meantime.
The other question with Deng right now is whether there will be repercussions from the spinal tap procedure that went wrong and knocked him out for the final seven games of the playoffs.
The Bulls are hopeful it's just a matter of his body producing more spinal fluid, to replace what he lost after the spinal tap, and he'll be fine. If Deng fully recovers in the next few weeks, there is not likely to be any formal complaint about his medical treatment.
It's easy in hindsight to wonder why a spinal tap -- testing for meningitis, which he didn't have -- kept him out of action for two weeks. Questions will probably linger about whether the spinal tap should have been administered in the first place, knowing the potential side effects; whether the Bulls should have been more involved in that decision and what the heck was Deng doing at the United Center a few hours after it happened?
Whether Deng remains with the Bulls long-term will be in doubt over the next 12 months or so. With his winning history, it makes little sense to let him go.
•Next man up: Carlos Boozer