Posted Jul 31 2012 7:49PM
Luol Deng could have gone cynical. He could have assessed the long odds against the Great Britain men's basketball team in the London Olympics, donned an all-or-nothing attitude, then shrugged off the commitment to his national team in favor of his NBA team.
But then, Luol Deng only plays for the Chicago Bulls. He isn't the Chicago Bulls.
For a while, it seemed as if Deng had his priorities out of whack, that he wasn't thinking of his day job first, the one that gave him $70 million contract. The Bulls' veteran small forward has torn ligaments in his left wrist, an injury he played with during the second half of 2011-12 and is playing with in the Olympics.
Yes, that meant Deng delayed surgery on his wrist and stuck around (mostly effectively) for what Chicago hoped would be a long, fruitful postseason -- until that storyline snapped along with the anterior-cruciate ligament in Derrick Rose's left knee in the playoff opener. Still, Deng's preference to wait on surgery was driven by the upcoming London Games, too, and his desire to be more than a basketball goodwill ambassador in a suit with a cast on his hand.
It never seemed selfish. Deng's pledge to Great Britain was all about gratitude for the asylum England provided when he, his parents and his siblings were fleeing war in Sudan and poverty in Egypt. His decision did, however, seem to lack the urgency and single-mindedness that the 6-foot-8 Deng needed to be showing to the Bulls and their NBA championship window.
The upside of Chicago's premature elimination from the 2012 playoffs might have been a swift surgical repair for Deng and a whole summer to recover. Waiting until after the Olympics seemed particularly indulgent and individual.
Then Deng showed up Sunday, scored 26 points in Britain's opening game -- a 95-75 blowout loss to Russia -- and sounded anything but indulgent or individual.
Yes, the memory of being part of the nation's first Olympic appearance since 1964 is his. But the experience was meant to be shared, something for the greater good of English hoops, heretofore scufflin'.
"It was a special moment," he told reporters afterward. "For us growing up, basketball didn't get much attention. We're playing against the world where basketball is everything in their country. We have dreams. We want to develop the game. Hopefully, we have youngsters watching and following in our footsteps."
Deng added: "If I was home watching these guys go through it, I don't know if it'd be easy for me to live with that. Now that I walked out with them, I can always talk about it and look back."
That's kind of how Chicago NBA fans will have to approach the next 12 to 24 months -- talking about and looking back on the Bulls' two fine years with the league's best regular-season record. That's a memory that can't be wiped away, unlike, say, the team's competitive chances in 2012-13 and maybe 2013-14.
Unlike Deng -- who now might not have surgery after all, making him available from the start -- the Bulls appear to have assessed their prospects, embraced an all-or-nothing agenda and, like Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow, gone underground. With Rose expected to be out at least through All-Star Weekend, possibly into March, they have set aside any ambitions about chasing a title next June and spent this offseason tweaking and tailoring the roster for ... what? Future tweaking and tailoring.
It's almost as if general manager Gar Forman and vice president John Paxson wanted to remove any temptation Rose, their passionate, ring-hungry point guard, might have had to rush back too soon. Survive the regular season, get a rested Rose back with six weeks or two months to spare and make playoff noise? Can't have that. So instead of keeping intact a roster that, in their hearts, they believed was good enough to win a title in 2012, the Bulls have opened, then plugged holes with a bunch of character actors from NBA Central Casting.
Out: Omer Asik, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, John Lucas III and Brian Scalabrine.
In: Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich, Vladimir Radmanovic, Mario Belinelli, Marcus Teague and Nate Robinson. Seems clear the crew Rose eventually comes back to will be a notch or three below the one he waved goodbye to in late April.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack for the changes is an endless loop of Forman assuring fans, through reporters at a Rose news conference, that all personnel decisions this summer would be made for basketball reasons, not financial ones.
Basketball reasons in a couple of years maybe, but hardly for now.
The Asik situation was vexing, no question, after Houston signed the backup center and restricted free agent to one of what Carmelo Anthony calls those "ridiculous" backloaded contracts. No one, not even the Rockets, will argue that Asik will be worth $14.9 million in Year 3 of the deal but that -- with its luxury-tax multiplier implications -- was what it took to get the Bulls to blink on matching. An argument could be made that Asik could be justified at an average of $8 million for each of three seasons. But team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who signs the checks, wasn't making it.
Not picking up options on Korver, Watson and Brewer enabled the Bulls to shave some salary -- and tax -- for 2012-13 too, their alleged replacements hired at reduced rates. But just as Asik's departure removes the competitive advantage of Chicago's bigger, deeper frontcourt, cashiering key bench guys from the past two seasons strips it of its depth and threatens its chemistry.
If Rose has been the first leg of the Bulls' championship-minded stool and a deep roster its second, defense has been the third leg, installed and coached well enough by Tom Thibodeau to accommodate Carlos Boozer. Getting similar results with Radmanovic, Bellinelli and Robinson? Looks like Bulls management wants to throw the ultimate test at their head coach before they extend his contract long-term.
The Bulls have been selling fans on the prudence of keeping their powder dry this season and possibly next for a strategic splash in 2014 free agency, when Deng's contract is done and Boozer likely will exit via the amnesty clause. That assumes, though, that A) big-name NBA free agents will take Chicago more seriously than they have in any previous year, including 2010, and B) Rose will remain patient with his hometown team's commitment to budget first, blueprint second.
So bully for Deng, who chose to show his appreciation for people who had his back when they didn't have to, even without a legit shot at a gold medal. His "other" team has gone the opposite route, taking for granted the people who have filled United Center seats, under the pretense that nothing but a championship -- NBA gold -- is worth pursuing.
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