Posted Sep 28 2010 10:19AM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- At least Joakim Noah had some people throwing themselves in front of the bus for him. As rumors swirled and speculation swelled that the Chicago Bulls' center might be dealt away for Denver's Carmelo Anthony, many fans and several media reports pointed out how valuable Noah is, how hard it would be to replace his passion and energy and size.
Luol Deng? He only had people throwing him under the bus. Again.
Deng, shifting transportation metaphors, was 23B, a middle seat in coach, upgradeable at any cost. First it was LeBron James, the most coveted free agent in a summer full of them and a small forward wooed to take over Deng's position while (ahem) he still was filling it. How would you like it if your boss recruited newly minted MBA grads by offering them your job, your desk and your cubicle ... while you still were using them?
Then it was Anthony, and the unspoken truth that any deal would necessarily involve Deng heading to Denver as a replacement and for salary-matching purposes. The hang-up to that one reportedly was Chicago's reluctance to part with Noah. No one ever suggested the Bulls weren't willing to move Deng or the $51.3 million left on his contract.
Finally, on Monday, it was "Welcome back, Luol. Great to see you! We're going to have a terrific year, aren't we?"
We. Uh huh.
"I never really worry about what I can't control," Deng told me in between photo shoots Monday at Bulls media day. "There's always been, since I've been in the NBA, rumors. I think tomorrow there will be another rumor. A month from now, there'll be another rumor. My main focus has to be, how good can I be? What can I do to help my team? I can never worry about tomorrow. All I can do is just focus on today."
The issue is trust, and it's a problem -- or just a fact of professional sports life -- for just about everyone. Beyond Deng and Noah, it has gone on league-wide this offseason, snagging others such as Devin Harris, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin and dozens more.
Every player is different. Some feel rejected when their names surface in outlandishly bogus Internet chatter. Others shrug and motor along even when the trade talks are legit and leaked. Agents and teammates counsel the latter approach of tough skin and detachment. After all, for every player who actually gets traded or discarded for a free agent, six or seven hear their names bandied about and nothing comes of it.
"It's part of the game, man," said new Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, sounding world-weary. "I'm going into my ninth season. I've been mentioned or rumored to be traded a million times. I've been on three teams. It's something you have to brush off and keep playing."
Chicago general manager Gar Forman said he talks to players constantly to quell rumors or to vet what someone's second-cousin heard on a sports-talk radio show. "I try to be transparent with all our players," Forman said. "And I tell them the same thing: If they ever want to know something, they can come to us and ask us what's going on."
Said Deng: "To communicate always helps." He also joked Monday that trade talk is in his NBA DNA, ever since he got drafted by Phoenix with the seventh overall pick in 2004 and traded that night to Chicago (for Jason Vroman and a pick that would become Nate Robinson). And let's be honest: Much of the reason he's available -- and criticized -- is because of his contract and the perceived gap between his salary and his output.
A six-year, $71 million guarantee can instill a lot of calm in someone. Still, doesn't it hurt a guy's feelings to be dangled around or potentially shoved aside?
"No, everybody's competitive," Deng said. "That's just the way it is. I think people are always going to move pieces together. Even if you have a Dream Team -- I'm sure the Dream Team, they said, 'They should have took someone out and put someone else in.'
"As a competitor, it definitely makes me want to get better. But I can't do anything about it [being out there]."
Getting better is a good reaction. Especially since Deng had a stronger year in 2009-10 than some people realize or others give him credit for. He averaged 17.6 points and a career-best 7.3 rebounds for the 41-41 Bulls, and opened eyes with some of his defensive work on James in the Chicago-Cleveland first-round series.
He did it in a system that, under coach Vinny Del Negro, too often planted Deng in a corner waiting for an outside jump shot that never came. Now under Tom Thibodeau, Deng is hoping to play on the move, cutting and slashing to highlight his athleticism. He had a physically encouraging summer, playing for Great Britain's national team and working out regularly after spending the 2009 offseason "on the couch" with a right tibia fracture.
"The one thing that I'm excited about is that I can go back to moving without the ball," Deng said. "From what I've seen that coach is trying to do, playing an inside game, I don't think we're going to do so much just on the perimeter. I think it will allow me a little bit to use my instincts and just play basketball."
Thibodeau, at his introductory news conference, referred to Deng as "underrated" and seems genuinely energized to be coaching him. Same with Noah, a player Thibodeau shadowed all summer in daily workouts at the team's practice facility. Adding a star such as Anthony would upgrade Chicago at small forward -- based on 2009-10 stats, by about 10.6 ppg, 0.1 rpg, 1.0 apg and an extra 282 free-throw attempts and 27 more 3-pointers made vs. Deng -- but with Noah in any package, that would be a hefty price to pay.
If, of course, any of the talk has been more than scuttlebutt and innuendo.
"I think that 75 percent of it is usually rumors," Noah said. "Carmelo Anthony is probably going to get traded. Whatever happens, happens. But as a player, you can only control what you do on the court. I think Luol understands that. I think I understand that."
Noah smiled. "As of today, I'm still here," he said. "So I'm very excited about two-a-days."
Now that's what we're (cough) talking about: Honesty.
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