Fit for the Kings? Bulls’ Deng likely staying put

There was a revealing interview with Luol Deng published Sunday for ESPN. It was written by Ian Whittell, a close friend of Deng’s from the British media, quoting Deng saying he wouldn’t be surprised if he were traded.

That has been widely speculated for weeks, though it has been a “story” for maybe five years as Deng often jokes with Chicago media — especially me — about trade rumors. They quieted the last two seasons as coach Tom Thibodeau came to rely on Deng more than anyone on the team, even Derrick Rose on some level, as Deng became an All-Star and all-league defender. But with Rose out likely much of next season and the Bulls now probably looking more toward the 2013-14 season, which is Deng’s last on his contract, the speculation developed again. Especially with several teams in the lottery, namely Sacramento, Golden State, Cleveland and Toronto saying they were looking for a small forward. So are the Hornets and Rockets with high draft picks.

Whittell added a Warriors scout was at the Great Britain game Saturday, which is where he likely got a good look at Deng in a suit. Deng is sitting out the pre-Olympic games to rest his torn left wrist ligament. He intends to play, which Deng said in the story was an issue between he and Bulls management. But Deng also continues to say he doesn’t expect to have surgery until after the 2012-13 season, as Kobe Bryant with a similar injury avoided surgery.

Deng also was quoted saying he understands why the Bulls would consider trading him, that it is part of the business, he would have no hard feelings and probably would consider deals himself if he were the Bulls. So then, easier to trade? More likely to stay? It raises the stakes for the Bulls for this week.

I still think because of the injury and the possibility of surgery that could keep Deng out a few months into next season, there won’t be a trade. Also because so many high level small forwards are potentially on the market, like Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala and Danny Granger. And if you could get one of those guys healthy or Deng maybe needing surgery whom would you want? Still, it could make for a wild draft night for the Bulls Thursday. And then the question might be whom would you draft if you could trade Deng to a team in the lottery?

Kia NBA Draft 2012

-- Cavs, No. 4. Likely not looking to trade for Deng, even though they’ll lose free agent small forward Antawn Jamison. They appear committed to a youth movement with lottery picks and building a core in the new Oklahoma City model. The speculation now is that Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Bradley Beal are the first three picks. Trading for No. 4 would mean a choice between the likely Nos. 4 and 5 picks, expected to be North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Both are small forwards with Barnes more the Deng-like perimeter shooter and Kidd-Gilchrist the slasher and scorer. The Cavs have the cap space to absorb Deng’s $13 million salary for next season. The Bulls would get the pick and then have room under the luxury tax to make an offer with their exception to add a free agent point guard like Steve Nash, Ray Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller or Jason Kidd. Suddenly the potential lineup doesn’t look to bad with say, Miller, Richard Hamilton, (Kidd-Gilchrist, Barnes or Jimmy Butler), Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah and Omer Asik as there’d then be no issue toward matching any Asik offer. And then you add Derrick Rose.

-- Kings, No. 5. The scenario would be similar to the Cavs’ as the Kings have cap space to absorb the salary and you’d get whomever the Cavs don’t take between Barnes and Kidd-Gilchrist. But the Bulls also could go for a shooter like Jeremy Lamb or maybe combo guard like Austin Rivers figuring Hamilton has one season left and Butler can play small forward. You still use the savings for your point guard to fill in for Rose and then have a high level three-guard rotation when Rose returns.

-- Warriors, No. 7. By the way, I don’t see the Bobcats dealing No. 2 for Deng, though there was said to be Charlotte interest in Gay. The Wizards at No. 3 seem intent on using their pick after trading for veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Portland at No. 6 has a quality small forward in Nicholas Batum, who is a restricted free agent. I’m not sure I’d deal with the Warriors. At No. 7 you’d probably have a choice among Lamb, Dion Waiters (whom I’m not a fan of), Rivers (whom I am) and maybe Terrence Ross or the latest hot point guard, Damian Lillard. It would be a chance to add a young talent. But with the Warriors over the cap, you’d have to match salary and take back Dorell Wright and likely Andris Biedrins or Richard Jefferson. No way I’d do that. There’d have to be other teams involved and those deals don’t usually work out.

-- Raptors, No. 8. They also have cap space to absorb Deng’s contract. So the Bulls would get the cap relief to use their exception and presumably add one of the free agent point guards, which is the major offseason need. The issue then is would you get a player good enough in the long term to give up Deng? Look, Deng is an All-Star and as Thibodeau said so many times the “glue” for the team. And he’s only 27. Would Rivers be there? Is he that good? John Henson? Marshall? Zeller? Ross? Terrence Jones? Do the Bulls like any of them that much? Though the Raptors really could use a point guard with Jose Calderon’s contract expiring after next season. You assume they’d rather have the rookie point guard prospect to team with DeMar DeRozan.

-- Hornets, No. 10. After trading Ariza they’d have a need for Deng, but the talk is they also will go the young core route and don’t want more veterans. They’ll resign Eric Gordon or match any offer and probably pick Tyler Zeller, the seven foot North Carolina center, after trading Okafor and likely losing Chris Kaman to free agency.

-- Houston, No. 14. They don’t have a true small forward and are intent on upgrading. The appeal for the Bulls would be the ability to get a point guard, Kyle Lowry, whom Houston likely has to move because free agent Goran Dragic says he won’t resign unless he can start. They are said to prefer Dragic, especially after Lowry ripped coach Kevin McHale late in the season. The Bulls have long supposedly had interest in guard Courtney Lee, who is a restricted free agent. Deals are tougher to make with a free agent involved. Maybe the Bulls take a small forward like Chandler Parsons or Marcus Morris and one of their picks, Nos. 14 or 16 and give back No. 29. The Bulls get some cap relief and can use the pick for someone like Kendall Marshall, Jared Sullinger, Andrew Nicholson or Perry Jones, the latter an athletic small forward with promise. But is that enough for someone like Deng? That might be a reach.

Bottom line? Deng probably opens next season with the Bulls. The Cavs likely use their pick, as do the Raptors. The Warriors deal doesn’t make enough sense. You don’t get quite enough with the Rockets to trade an All-Star. The Kings remain, as they have, the most intriguing possibility, though there hasn’t been much talk from them.

Bagaric makes annual return to Chicago

So who are the greatest European players in the NBA? Here’s the list of a 10-year European veteran who played three seasons in the NBA:

1. Toni Kukoc
2. Dirk Nowitzki
3. Arvidas Sabonis
4. Drazen Petrovic
5. Vlade Divac

That’s the list of one time Bulls center Dalibor Bagaric, the 24th pick in the 2000 draft when the Bulls disastrously stocked their roster with six draft picks. Bagaric played three seasons mostly on inactive or reserve and then returned to Europe, where he still plays. He played for a championship team and runner up in consecutive seasons in Italy and became one of the more highly regarded defensive big men in Europe, a version of Andris Biedrins before Biedrins was psychologically broken by Don Nelson or Tyson Chandler. I ran into Bagaric at a White Sox/Cubs game last week as Bagaric was on his annual trip to Chicago to see the White Sox.

“Jerry Reinsdorf introduced me to the sport and explained to me the basic rules (when he played for the Bulls) and now I wake up to watch White Sox games,” said Bagaric. “Sunday games are best because sometimes they are early and I can watch on my time (eight hours difference to Croatia). I set this trip to make sure I was here for the Sox/Cubs.”

Bagaric was back playing in Croatia this season and is continuing his career at 32, a muscular 7-2, 290 pounds. He played in Spain earlier last season, but missed his family too much (children nine and five) and returned to play in a Croatian league. “A girl, they need their father,” Bagaric said. Bagaric almost returned to the NBA once, in 2006 with Memphis. But when a Grizzlies deal to move Jake Tsakalidis to Seattle fell apart, his offer was off. Bagaric still speaks fondly of his time with the Bulls and remains close to members of the organization. He calls his time with the Bulls “bad timing” as he came with Brad Miller, Dragan Tarlac and Jake Voshkuhl and then the team drafted Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. As a result, Bagaric played about 900 minutes over three seasons and left to return to play in Europe.

“I was unlucky,” he says. “I was going from one world to another. I spoke a little bit of English, but my words were not like now. It was great the Chicago Bulls drafted me. Everyone follows the Bulls with Michael, Scottie, Toni Kukoc. I should have been more patient, but I wasn’t. I was 20. I just wanted to play. You think differently now than when you are 20. I’m playing garbage minutes (his final season). I don’t get serious playing time. The year before I played 50 games and got some good minutes. The second year I showed I could do something. The third year I cannot do anything? I played 11 games and only garbage minutes.”

Bagaric went to Greece, won a title in Italy and then lost in the finals and was greeted by 40,000 fans upon the team’s return. He’s since played in Spain and back in Croatia and may play in Germany.

He still says being drafted by the Bulls was a dream come true and the organization never asked him to leave. He says that remains a regret. “I think I should stay here and fight,” Bagaric said. “I have a decent, nice career in Europe, winning a championship, playing for a good team. But I am a fighter. I don’t like to give up. I played against the best players in the world, Hakeem, Shaq, Allen Iverson when it looked like he could score anytime he wanted. It was a great thing when the Bulls drafted me.”

Bagaric, by the way, says he favors Kukoc No. 1 because he won three NBA championships with the Bulls, titles in Europe, and it was more difficult for him than Nowitzki having to fit in with Jordan and Pippen, while Nowitzki was chosen to be the main scorer. Bagaric also has watched closely another Spanish league player, Bulls draft pick Nikola Mirotic. He scouted Mirotic as someone who runs the court well, is a long shooting power forward who handles the ball well for his size. Bagaric likened him to Robert Horry in Horry’s Houston days when he won a title with Olajuwon in 1994.

Speaking of former Bulls…

-- So Bagaric heads back to Croatia and the thought came about where are some of those former Bulls? In the “Where are they now?” category, the Riverside Press Enterprise profiled Corey Benjamin returning back home, where he has a business, Basketball Legends, which trains youngsters. Benjamin was a late first round Bulls pick on 1998. "I'm just trying to give back to the community and help out kids who are less fortunate, and be a role model," Benjamin told the newspaper. "I want to help kids get on the right path and work hard and succeed." Benjamin played in China, Korea, Japan, Italy, Portugal, Puerto Rico and Venezuela and in the ABA.

Among others from that era, Kornel Davis is director of international scouting for the Suns, Kevin Ollie is an assistant at the University of Connecticut and Mark Bryant is on the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lonny Baxter, after a gun arrest including shooting a gun near the White House, played for a championship team in Greece after tours in Spain and Turkey. He now plays in the Russian league for a team in Siberia and A.J. Guyton after retiring because of glaucoma is coaching in the minor leagues in Downstate Illinois and is interviewing for small college jobs.

Miami on the verge of a dynasty… or not

-- Listening to the sports news the last few days you would think Miami isn’t going to lose a title for the next five years. If you’re not a Heat fan, don’t worry. They’re not that good. Yes, LeBron James was terrific basically since Game 6 of the series with Boston. But Miami trailed a still average Pacers team and had to go seven with a physically decimated Celtics team. It worked for Miami because Dwyane Wade isn’t the same player because of injuries and James resumed his Cleveland role only with two better teammates. I had Oklahoma City to win the series, and nothing that happened persuaded me the Heat is better. Which begs the question that’s been raised since the series ended regarding the rehiring of coach Scott Brooks, whose contract expires this month. Let me say Brooks is a good coach and was very popular with his late game talk about being sportsmen. I suspect the Thunder will rehire Brooks given they probably feel they’ve come farther, faster than they expected. Plus, GM Sam Presti seems conservative about major moves. But the Thunder today seem to me where the Bulls were in 1989, you know the A to B to C thing. Is Brooks the coach who can bring them home? Like Doug Collins then, Brooks is young, smart and enthusiastic. But his top players play with a sense of entitlement to do as they please as Michael Jordan did then. I don’t know if Oklahoma City is far enough west. But without a true point guard, the Thunder is perfect for the triangle offense, especially as they also have post men who can pass and don’t use them as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play too much isolation ball, as a guy named Michael Jordan did before being coached by Phil Jackson. I suspect going for someone like Jackson is too over the top for a cautious group like the Thunder. And, after all, they did get to the Finals, which was another step after last season. So why change? And other than the final game it was one or two possessions every game. And if Durant gets that foul call in Game 2 and the Thunder win, maybe it is a completely different series.

But there was a lot wrong with the Thunder in the Finals. The Heat averaged 102 per game after about 98 in the regular season. You’re supposed to yield fewer points in the playoffs. Especially since Oklahoma City didn’t push the ball nearly enough and averaged about five points per game fewer than they did in the regular season.

Durant and Westbrook looked like they were playing hard. But they weren’t. Miami was about a 35 percent three point shooting team in the regular season and then 43 percent in the Finals. Which means the Thunder players didn’t close out much, which was obvious with all the open shots Miami got. Someone also needs to tell Durant to rebound and defend. He can do it. He’d be great at it. Is Brooks up to demanding that after being so close with all those kids for so long? Why was Derek Fisher playing so much? Now Kendrick Perkins was hurt? If he was, why was he playing? He couldn’t play in that series, anyway, being so slow when not hurt and Miami playing small. Durant needed to be at power forward. All that isolation dribble/drive was brutal with so little ball movement, the Thunder averaging about three fewer assists than in the regular season. They barely made the Heat defense work with all the quick shots and holding the ball. How perfect would James Harden be in the triangle with all that ball rotation. Isolation Miami moved the ball much better.

And where was the zone? Oklahoma City is perfect for it with long armed, active, athletic players. James and Wade weren’t making shots. Dallas left a blueprint to play them and the Thunder paid no attention. I know the Thunder didn’t seem always to get a fair shake from the officials like when Westbrook was throwing himself at the basket for 40-some points and getting three free throws. They did beat three good teams to get there, so it was a wonderful season for them. But the way they play now there’s hardly a certainty they’ll get back to the Finals.

NBA news and notes

-- So there was a report from the infamous web site Deadspin Sunday Amar’e Stoudemire allegedly responded to a fan who taunted him on Twitter (another story is why Stoudemire is even reading that) by cursing the fan and calling the fan a “fag.” Stoudemire later apologized. This of course with the Gay Pride parade taking place. The only shock is J.R. Smith was not somehow involved. ... A New York real estate listing had Iman Shumpert, who has a place in Westchester where the Knicks practice, renting a New York apartment near Madison Square Garden for $9,200 per month, suggesting on his rookie contract he is consulting Antoine Walker for spending advice. ... Even though the Knicks won the arbitration that will enable them to use the Bird exception to resign Jeremy Lin and still have their mid level exception, salary cap guru Larry Coon reports the new collective bargaining agreement has a hard cap clause if the Knicks try to sign a free agent for more than $3 million. He wrote he didn’t except the Knicks to thus exceed that, likely putting them out of the running for Steve Nash. ... Jason Kidd on a conference call promoting a golf tournament said he’d be interested in signing with the Nets, Mavs, Bulls and Knicks. It was not clear whom Kidd would not sign with, but there did not seem to be many teams. ... It didn’t get much attention, but John McEnroe in an interview with Bob Costas on NBC said his friend Jeanie Buss told him Phil Jackson did want to coach the Knicks but never was asked. What received more attention was an HBO interview in which Jackson downplayed the Knicks’ talent and said he wasn’t interested in the job.

-- Heat players earned about $3.3 million for winning the championship in the playoff pool that pays each round. The players divide up the total and determine shares, generally dependent on playing time. If the players have 15 equal shares (which is rare as partial shares often are included) it would be about $220,000 per player. Not all that much for LeBron James, who makes almost $200,000 per game on his regular season salary. ... There’s now suspicion around the league that one of the teams on the fringe of the lottery pushed the story of Jared Sullinger having physical problems so he falls out of the top 10 and might be taken by a team that normally wouldn’t have had a chance to get him. ... Pretty ironic to hear reports out of Phoenix of them maybe drafting a point guard or trying to sign free agent Goran Dragic, whom they traded for Aaron Brooks. Plus, the Suns threw in a first round pick. Brooks remains available to the Suns of he returns from playing in China ... J.R. Smith’s China team is suing him among other reasons claiming he missed 80 practices. Wonder if Smith is checking that “practice!” Allen Iverson speech on YouTube for the hearing. “We’re talking just 80!” Smith is a free agent and did shoot 18 percent on threes in the playoffs.