With their missing pieces down to one, the Bulls played well on Christmas Day in Brooklyn.
Jimmy Butler (ankle sprain) and Kirk Hinrich (back) returned to the lineup in the 95-78 victory. Since Derrick Rose has a long-term knee injury, the one player still missing is Luol Deng, who has sat out seven of the last 10 games with a sore left Achilles.
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Deng has been in the news recently. One national report said the Bulls are now determined not to trade Deng, who will be a free agent after the season. That idea was repeated during ESPN's broadcast of the Bulls-Nets game.
The reality is, nothing has changed with the Bulls or Deng. Trading Deng before the February deadline would make sense because they might lose him for nothing in return otherwise. But there's no trade to be made -- at least, not right now.
The scenario was explained here weeks ago. One of the Bulls' primary goals next off-season is to create some financial flexibility. Having four highly paid players (Rose, Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah) makes it difficult to create any depth. That task will get even more difficult as the penalties for exceeding the luxury tax increase.
Even if the Bulls use the amnesty provision on Boozer and let Deng leave as a free agent, they still won't be far enough under the salary cap to make a maximum salary offer to a free agent.
They're hoping to bring European sensation Nikola Mirotic over from Real Madrid, which will require some cash. By staying under the luxury tax, they might also do some effective bargain shopping next summer.
The problem with trading Deng is the Bulls don't want to take back salary. The ideal trade would be for a young, low-salaried player, or a draft pick, paired with expiring contracts.
There are plenty of young teams that could use Deng as a veteran presence, such as Charlotte, Washington, Cleveland, New Orleans. But why would those teams risk giving up a young player or draft pick when there's no guarantee Deng would re-sign?
Deng would also be a good fit to put a championship contender over the top, such as Oklahoma City, San Antonio or the Clippers. But those teams don't have expiring contracts that would make sense for the Bulls.
So the Bulls will probably hang on to Deng and see what happens in the summer. If the market is sluggish, and the Bulls can keep Deng at a discounted price, there's a chance he'll stay. If some team makes an offer in the Josh Smith neighborhood of $13 million per year, then Deng is likely to depart after 10 seasons with the Bulls.
Deng's value as a free agent is difficult to predict. He's risen to the occasion in the wake of Rose's injury, averaging a career-high 19.6 points per game, while shooting a solid 46 percent from the field.
He's not much of a late-game finisher and probably doesn't carry a perception of untapped potential like Detroit might have seen in Smith.
Also unclear is what price would make sense for the Bulls to re-sign Deng -- $11 million per season? $10 million? Less?
Coach Tom Thibodeau often argues that Deng is one of the NBA's premier two-way players. Keeping him makes sense, but the Bulls' crowded payroll needs to be revamped next summer.
That makes the outcome difficult to predict. Right now, there seems to be a better chance Deng leaves than stays.
Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson talked about Deng's situation this week on SiriusXM NBA Radio.
"As we've said all along, you want to try to make it work and there's still that possibility," Paxson said. "So we'll see where it goes. Again, nothing is etched in stone.
"He's battling a little nagging injury right now, but when he's been out there for us this year he's been our most productive player. He's a guy that all of us have a lot of confidence in."
Teague returns to D-League:
The Bulls have made a second attempt to assign guard Marquis Teague to the D-League's Iowa Energy. They sent Teague to Iowa on Dec. 3, but he returned to Chicago immediately because guard Mike James had a knee injury.
James has since been released, but the Bulls think they have a good point guard rotation with Kirk Hinrich and newcomer D.J. Augustin.
Hinrich played against Brooklyn on Wednesday after missing five games with a sore back. But the Bulls want Teague to get extended playing time and figure they can always bring him back on short notice if there's another injury.
Teague has averaged 2.4 points and 1.5 assists this season. Iowa has two home games this weekend against the Maine Red Claws.
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