As the rumor mill cycles 'round and 'round, Bulls forward Luol Deng has gone from potential trade bait to possible extension candidate and back. According to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, Deng and the Bulls have discussed the future between the two parties since the conclusion of Chicago's season, and plan to meet again regarding a possible extension. Per Deng's agent, however, that may not be the case. From Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
"We've had zero discussions about an extension (for Deng)," [Herb] Rudoy said. "Zero."
This coming season will be the last of Deng's current contract -- after which he'll be free to choose his next team as an unrestricted free agent unless the Bulls lock him in with an extension. That's an option well worth discussing, but Deng sits in that weird void between essential and expendable.
As far as the former, Deng led the Bulls in minutes played in each of the last three seasons, while serving as the team's top perimeter defender and contributing 16.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest. His game consists largely of hustle cuts, good defensive positioning and mid-range jumpers, but through mastery of the bland Deng has carved out an All-Star-worthy game that would benefit most every team. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is such a fan that he rarely takes Deng off the court, even at risk of injury and considerable fatigue. Some of that is merely a product of circumstance and Thibodeau's nose-to-the-grindstone ethos, but one could easily see how a coach like Thibs would grow so accustomed to all that Deng provides that he'd be reluctant to go without. The Bulls, on their whole, are defined by just how infrequently they make mistakes in their defensive coverage, and Deng's play is emblematic of that brand of consistent, error-free basketball.
That said, Deng doesn't come cheap, and his contract happens to expire at a time when the Bulls are free to make some course-changing personnel decisions. Jimmy Butler has developed to the point of mimicking much of what Deng offers as a defender, along with a rapidly improving jumper and some situational work off the dribble. That in itself could make Chicago hesitate before locking Deng in on another lucrative deal, especially considering the flexibility that could be had next summer. The only Bulls set to be under contract for the 2014-15 season are Butler (team option), Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, and Marquis Teague (team option), who, in total, register $59 million in committed salary. That's likely to be near or over the cap line, but if the Bulls were to go through with the long-rumored possibility of amnestying Boozer prior to next season, they could trim that total to just $42 million with room enough, perhaps, to chase a second tier-free agent. That would leave the Bulls' roster a bit thin, but could follow an alternate route in building around Rose and Noah without leaning so heavily on Deng and Boozer. There's not much wrong with Chicago's current core, but the freedom to pursue a variety of team-building paths is of value in itself.
Plus, the possibility of amnestying Boozer/the eventual expiration of his contract could explain some of the rumored deals of Chicago swapping Deng for draft picks. The acquisition of another talented rookie might compromise the Bulls' contention in the short term, but would better stretch the Bulls' potential for 2014 cap room. It takes some clever maneuvering for teams with as many expensive investments as Chicago to carve out a useful (and usable, given the cap holds typically involved) amount of cap room, but the Bulls have that rare opportunity if they're willing to flip Deng for a more affordable asset and eat the final year of Boozer's contract. That's no small risk and no small price, but it could give Chicago a way out if GM Gar Forman decides to move in a different direction.
I'm ultimately not convinced he should. Deng is a trade rumor regular based on the size of his deal alone, but he's still of considerable value in stabilizing the Bulls' coverage on the wings and rounding out one of the best starting lineups in basketball. The 2013 Pacers showed just how far a single great lineup can take a team in the postseason. So long as Rose returns, Chicago should have the core necessary to contend for the 2014 title with Deng as a prominent part. The Bulls could get by without him, but why should they fiddle with a plan for contention just as Rose works his way back into the lineup? Deng would be crucial in matching up defensively with either Miami or Indiana next season, and remains just the kind of offensive x-factor Chicago needs to work off of Rose's shot creation. If the worst that happens is Deng becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season, then Chicago could amnesty Boozer and adjust course. If they're unwilling to do so and are concerned with the possibility of overpaying Deng to stay, then perhaps it does make sense to talk extension this summer and lock in the Bulls' core. Deng's future is a fulcrum for the front office's thinking, regardless of what Forman, Thibodeau, and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf decide. Chicago has the ability to call its own shot and will reveal how confident the Bulls are in their roster and how much they're willing to pay for a contender.