Luol Deng was a guest on ‘Convos With Carol,’ an Instagram live show hosted by Carol Tshabalala on Wednesday. The former Bull had some eye-opening comments about the previous Chicago front office brass.
Deng played in Chicago for ten seasons, averaging 16.1 points per game and starting 591 of the 637 games he played in a Bulls uniform. Deng made his mark in Chicago, playing a role that exemplified all aspects of his game. His strengths included rebounding and scoring off the dribble or in the post. He also became the Bulls’ best defender year in and year out.
Deng was a fan favorite. Looking back now and hearing his thoughts on the Bulls front office is not something I nor many Chicago basketball fans expected. However, it shouldn’t surprise us given how the previous regime worked.
Going into the summer before his contract was up, the Bulls wanted Deng to take a “team discount.” Head coach Tom Thibodeau was adamant with Gar Forman and John Paxson about extending Deng.
“He [Gar Forman] told me to take another team discount. I remember saying, ‘Why would I take another team discount?’ Like, ya know, why is there a discount again, because this [time period] is where I was an All-Star.”
Going into his last season with the Bulls in 2013, Deng was just 28 years old. He was a two-time All-Star at that point in his career. Thibodeau was not happy with the front office because they weren’t doing everything they could to keep one of their star players.
“Thibs was upset. Thibs kept telling them, ‘Sign Lu. I need you to sign Lu.’ So when the year started, I wasn’t [extended] for the Bulls and Thibs decided that he’s going to make them know how important I am for the team and ran everything through me and this is why I love Thibs still today.”
In 23 games before the Bulls traded Deng that season, he averaged 19 points per game while playing just over 37 minutes per game.
It was well-known for years the Bulls front office and Thibodeau clashed at times. Deng serves as a prime example because he averaged more minutes per game than anyone else in the league twice during his tenure. The front office wanted their star players to play fewer minutes considering the injuries certain Bulls players had sustained. For Deng, the infamous spinal tap story was not a good look for the organization.
Before game six of a first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bulls thought Deng had meningitis, so doctors recommended a spinal tap. It turned out that Deng never had it and the spinal tap caused spinal fluid to leak from his body.
“The end of the season was disappointing. I worked hard all season, played in the All-Star Game, and wanted to take the team as far as possible in the playoffs. But then, when I got sick, I think that we could have handled the situation better. Obviously there are some things that you can’t handle. You can’t really handle getting sick, being taken to the ER, or going to the hospital. I got the spinal tap and that’s where it went all wrong. My body didn’t react well to the spinal tap, I had some serious side effects that not only didn’t allow me to play basketball but really put my life in danger.”– Luol Deng on how the Bulls handled the spinal tap situation during the playoffs against the Nets
At that point in time, Derrick Rose had experienced his infamous ACL injury and another season-ending knee injury already. As Chicago fans know, Rose was never the same after it. Thibodeau drew constant criticism for playing players too many minutes.
Despite Deng only being 28 at the time, there was no doubt the Bulls front office questioned how much longer he could take on such a large minutes load, giving them a reason to only offer him a three-year, $30 million deal.
Deng didn’t like that, considering he had already been an All-Star and part of many winning teams that competed in the playoffs.
“So, I was like what’s the team discount and he didn’t say anything. At the time, you know, it didn’t make sense for my career and where I’m at.”
“When the front office saw that I was averaging 20 obviously now everyone wanted to pay me more money. So they decided to trade me before they lose me for nothing. So I was called into the office and given two days to take 30 million for three years or else. I decided to go with or else. We had all summer to sign the deal, they didn’t want to sign it.”
Deng went on to say he felt betrayed by the Bulls for trading him.
After the Bulls traded Deng, Jimmy Butler became the new version of Deng. Butler averaged double-digit points in the 2013-14 campaign. In the 2014-15 season, he led the league in minutes per game and made his first All-Star appearance. He was the best defender on the team, averaging nearly two steals per game. He eventually became the go-to scorer since Rose’s injuries were almost always a factor.
Butler credits a lot of his success to Deng’s mentorship.
Deng’s contract situation came down to the Bulls not wanting to pay another large contract with how much money they were investing in Rose. Rose earned over $94 million during his tenure with Chicago.
It hurts to say it again, but if Rose doesn’t sustain a high quantity of injuries, the Bulls and Deng might have been able to work out a better contract extension. However, with how much Deng gave to the Bulls’ organization, he surely deserved better.
After finishing out the 2013-14 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Deng didn’t get a better offer than the Bulls’ original proposal. He signed with the Miami Heat on a two-year, $20 million contract. Deng bet on himself and it backfired on him. With how he put Forman on blast, however, maybe he was happy to be out of the organization at that point in his career.