Pardon fans of the Chicago Bulls if they view Luol Deng's decision not to play for Great Britain's national team this summer as something less than an NBA offseason-defining development for their preferred club.
When a player has been as disappointing and overpaid as Deng has been just one year into his lavish, long-term $71 million contract, it's understandable that the locals might not be moved by whatever emotions or anguish he might feel in backing off a commitment to a team across the pond. In a non-Olympic year. While recovering from a stress fracture in his right tibia. While the Bulls still are waiting to get the best of Deng through 82 games plus a deep playoff run.
Still, no news is ... well, in the case of the Bulls, no news. Deng's decision to put first the team that committed to building itself around him is about all that passes for news around the Berto Center these days. While other contenders throughout the league engage in a protracted bout of high-stakes one-upsmanship that has been fairly exhilarating, Chicago has opted to do next to nothing. It has taken the tease and the potential of the Bulls' unexpected and remarkable seven-game playoff clash with the Boston Celtics and has wrung it dry of promise, thanks to an improvement-from-within attitude that even the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic would be embarrassed to peddle.
But even approach requires a best-case interpretation of Ben Gordon's move to the Detroit Pistons, his 20.7 points per game replaced somehow, by someone, a still-unknown who will need help covering the 41.4-point swing that represents four times a season when the Bulls face their Central Division rivals. It's true that Gordon was a gunner, that he reportedly envied Deng's deal and often played for his own (five years, $55 million from Detroit), and that he resented the Bulls for twice pulling offers from the table. It's true as well that his game is locked into one dimension: On the night he scored 42 points against Boston, Gordon had one rebound and no assists in 44 minutes -- and Chicago lost. In fact, the former UConn star averaged 29.0 in the four games the Bulls lost, 18.0 in the three they won.
But those who say Gordon would have cost the Bulls upwards of $20 million annually -- putting any luxury-tax burden solely on his contract, as the latest done -- are just fiddling with numbers to rival any Washington stimulus committee. Sorry, too, if we're not convinced by owner Jerry Reinsdorf's recent stated contention that, with Jannero Pargo now in the house, Gordon would have trouble getting his minutes. At least coach Vinny Del Negro didn't try to sell that elixir.
"There's no question we'll miss some of the things Ben gave us, the ability to have big scoring quarters, his ability to make shots, especially at the end of games" Del Negro told Sam Smith of Bulls.com. "Other guys have to step up. It's a big year for Joakim [Noah] and Tyrus [Thomas], for [Derrick Rose's] growth. John Salmons and Brad Miller will be with us from Day 1. Get Luol Deng to the level we need him. We're going to miss Ben in certain situations, but I feel the rest of the guys can pick up and hopefully we can be better defensively and rebounding."
Hopefully. It's hard to make plans for May and June on hopefully.
There is evidence that Salmons could pick up most of Gordon's scoring slack, stemming largely from the 35 points he scored in the triple-overtime Game 6 victory vs. Boston. Salmons didn't so much blossom when he got to Chicago as emerge from under that bushel in Sacramento; his stats were amazingly similar before and after the trade (18.4 ppg, 37.4 minutes, 47.2 percent FG shooting, 41.8 three-point shooting in 53 games with the Kings, 18.3 ppg, 37.7 minutes, 47.3 FG, 41.5 three-point in 26 regular-season games with the Bulls). But he's 29 years old, is with his third team and never averaged more than 12.5 points before last season.
Then there's this: Gordon at least was headstrong enough not to yield entirely to Rose, the rookie who instantly was seen as the Bulls' all-everything guy. It's almost a certainty that Rose will try to score more now, even though his team and he might be better off if he actually tried to score less. Remember Game 1 of the playoffs, when Rose thrust his name up there with legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by getting 36 points as a rookie in his postseason debut? Well, don't forget Games 2 and 3 then, when Rose combined for 19 points, shot 9-of-25 and totaled nine assists and 11 turnovers after posting 11 and five in the opener. The last thing Chicago needs is to turn this guy into Allen Iverson.
The draft yielded James Johnson, a 6-foot-8 forward from Wake Forest who was the No. 16 pick overall in the June draft. Johnson opened some eyes in the Summer League, as a sturdy player capable of logging time at two or three spots who averaged 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists in Vegas. But he will need to stay lean, has to work on his shot and won't be as a rookie what Rose was. Forward Taj Gibson of USC, the Bulls' other first-rounder, sat out the final three games in Vegas with a foot injury and committed 19 fouls in the two games he played (summer rules, remember).
Since the draft, Chicago has been toyed with as a destination for Utah forward Carlos Boozer. It has been enmeshed in sign-and-trade rumors about Knicks restricted free agent David Lee. It saw Gordon jump to a rival. Just the other day, it saw New Orleans swap Tyson Chandler not for P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith -- two players long gone, from whom the Bulls got little (Brown) and nothing (Smith) -- but for Emeka Okafor. Okafor at least would have been an upgrade over Thomas and Noah in the Bulls' endless quest for some low-post scoring.
Contenders hither and yon are reconfiguring and seemingly improving themselves, while Chicago has to count on Deng, who has missed 52 games the past two seasons, along with this year's playoffs. Meanwhile, as new general manager Gar Forman awaits Aaron Gray's move on his qualifying offer, he sees the roster as set.
"It's an important year for us because we want to grow," Forman told Smith. "We think we've got a team that will compete."
Really? Subtract Gordon, add Rasheed Wallace and a healthy Kevin Garnett to the Celtics and I'm not sure that springtime thriller even lasts four games.