Luol Deng is a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs shocked most people and prevented me from sleeping much last night when they swung a deal for the 2-time All Star from the Chicago Bulls. They gave up Andrew Bynum, two 2nd round picks, a heavily protected first round pick from the Sacramento Kings, and the right to swap picks in the 2015 draft, provided that the Cavs' pick is outside of the lottery. Overall, the consensus seems to be that both teams did well in this trade. But there is one issue that somewhat complicates the matter for the Cavs -- Luol Deng is a free agent at the end of the season.
Deng is making $14.75 million in 2013-14, but is an unrestricted free agent during this coming offseason. Perhaps the Cavs will work out an extension with Deng before he hits the open market, but that would be a separate transaction and shouldn't really be included in any analysis of this trade. Since he'd be an unrestricted free agent, the Cavs could have theoretically signed Deng during the offseason even if they hadn't make this trade. Right now, they gave up those picks for a few months of Deng during this current season.
If the Cavs don't sign Deng to an extension and he becomes an unrestricted free agent, what kind of money will he command? It's a tough question to answer because Deng is such a unique player. He's a 2-time All Star, but nobody would call him a superstar. He puts up strong offensive numbers, but a lot of his value comes on defense and as a "glue guy." He's also going to be 29 years old in April and his physical prime is likely behind him. He's suffered various injuries over the years and logged a ton of minutes on his body. Andre Iguodala is probably his closest comparison and he signed a 4 year deal worth $48 million this past summer with the Golden State Warriors. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Deng recently rejected a 3 year, $30 million extension from the Bulls before he was traded to Cleveland.
The Bulls were unwilling to pay Deng, 28, market value in the $12 million-to-$13 million-a-year range over four or five seasons. Deng spent nine-plus seasons in Chicago, where he often played hurt. Chicago is committed to re-signing shooting guard Jimmy Butler to a lucrative contract extension this summer, and after the loss of Derrick Rose for the season, the Bulls made a move for the long-term.
Cleveland will undoubtedly try to re-sign Deng this summer and can make the richest offer on the market.
Wojnarowski also suggests that the Cavs will be trying to re-sign Deng, but I think it's a little more complicated than that. No matter how slim the odds might be, I think the Cavs will still at least make an offer to LeBron James if he becomes a free agent at the end of the year. In order to make that max offer, they would likely have to hold off on re-signing Deng until they know what LeBron is doing. Would Deng be okay with being considered a backup plan or potentially the 3rd option on the team if Cleveland tried to get James and Deng (highly unlikely, but bear with me)?
What is Luol Deng looking for?
A recent story from CSNChicago's Aggrey Sam offers a tremendous look into Deng's thought process as he approaches free agency. I strongly recommend that you read the entire article, but I'll give you some highlights here.
First of all, it shows that Deng is a true professional, but also a guy that wants to be compensated fairly.
"If I said I'm not, then I'd be lying. I'm being realistic. It's not greed, it's not anything. First of all, the first thing I do when I play this game, is be the best I can be. Money-wise, not money-wise, that's the best thing I want to be. Playing, the fact that I know it's my contract year, I have to show people what I can do. It's not a selfish thing, and it's not the only reason. If it wasn't my contract year, I'd still be playing hard to show people," he explained to CSNChicago.com in a remarkably candid interview.
You can't blame him at all for thinking that way. The NBA is a business and he currently does not have a contract for next season. It's only logical for Deng to be at least partially thinking about his financial security. CSNChicago asked Deng if he had considered playing for somebody other than the Bulls and he admits that it was clearly something he had thought about. Deng also seems to indicate here that he would rather sign an extension than wait to hit the open market, something that might play in the Cavs favor if both parties decide that this is a good match. Lots of teams will have cap space this offseason and it's possible that somebody like the Los Angeles Lakers could offer Deng $15 million per year if they miss out on LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. If the Cavs really want to keep Deng, they would be wise to lock him up before that become a possibility.
"I have no choice to now, but yeah. If someone comes up to you - just to use an example - and says, ‘Look, I'm going to give you this money right now or you can wait and go through the recruiting process, and you might end up getting the same money.' You don't know, you might get more. What do you do? I think, being who I am, I would take what I've got right now."
Statistics can't fully capture Deng's value
Tom Thibodeau will obviously miss Luol Deng on the Bulls and the CSNChicago article includes some really great quotes about how Thibs views Deng's value. He reiterates the idea that Deng's PER of 17.4 doesn't come close to capturing his full value.
"I look at him in terms of what he brings to our team, and he's done an incredible job for us over the last four years, really. And it's because of the fact that he plays both sides of the ball, he plays to win, he can guard multiple positions, he can score, he can rebound, he can make plays. I think sometimes that gets overlooked. But probably the most important thing is he gives you some toughness on the floor. That part is one of his strengths, and I think he's being recognized for that now. Being a two-time All Star, that says people are recognizing how important he is to the team and what he brings to winning. You can't really measure him statistically, even though his statistics are good"
Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the article also features a quote from Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown praising Deng as a player. It doesn't take a genius to guess that Brown would love a player like Deng.
"He's just a tough, gritty veteran that really knows how to play. Derrick Rose obviously is the head of the snake for this team, but Luol is a very, very important piece," Brown said. "He's helped them win a lot of games. He makes them different because of his length and his ability to understand how to play the game the right way offensively. He's a heck of a defender and he just does stuff that doesn't add up in the box score"
I figure that after having Deng on the roster for a few months, Brown will be pushing for the Cavs to re-sign him. If everything works out for the team and they make the playoffs like they want to, how can you not try to bring Deng back? He'll undoubtedly be a big reason for this 11-23 team's turnaround and is one of the very few veteran players in this extremely young locker room. He brings experience, toughness, and leadership that the Cavs severely lack. Deng doesn't fix all of the problems that this team has, but he fixes some of them. And I think there's something to be said for making that next step forward. He isn't a franchise changer, but should help this team get out of the group of teams that are considered laughable organizations. He won't singlehandedly transform the locker room environment, but having a hardworking, selfless role model for Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and the other young guys on this roster can't be a bad thing. I would argue that all of the losing and disorganization on the Cavs in recent years has hindered the development of some players. Deng can help change that to a certain degree. And there's value in that, even if it doesn't instantly make the Cavs contenders.
What would it take to re-sign Deng?
This is the big question. Because he's not the youngest or healthiest player, you don't want to overpay him when he might not be able to contribute at a similar level for the next 4 years. But Cleveland teams typically have to pay at least slightly over market value to keep free agents. So Deng might actually be worth $10 million per year, but the Cavs could have to pay more than that to make him stay.
If the Cavs decide that they want to keep Deng, I would rather see them overpay for a shorter term deal than give him 4 years. For example, a 2 year deal worth $30 million is probably better for the team than a 4 year deal worth $44 million. It's just never a good idea to give aging and injury prone players big longterm contracts. That's how you end up with a situation like Gerald Wallace's. He was a good player when he signed the contract, but he was getting older and plays a style of basketball that doesn't exactly age well. Deng is a similar case and the Cavs don't want to hurt their future flexibility by paying a 33-year old Luol Deng $10+ million.
Money will obviously be a factor for Deng, but Aggrey Sam completely kicked ass with his interview for CSNChicago and got a few more great quotes about what Deng wants in the future.
"I want to win. A winning situation, that's it. I want to be in a place where guys are committed, the team is committed, the organization is committed, the coaching staff knows what direction they're going. To me, I play better and I shine better and I'm a better player on a team that's committed to winning. I've been on teams that are losing in the past, and it's shown that it isn't for me because it just drags everybody down. But when a team knows where they're going, what direction they're going, I want to be in a winning environment. That's where I want to be."
It remains to be seen if the Cavs can reshape themselves into a "winning environment," but it seems as though that's what it will take to keep Luol Deng. Deng is a member of the Cavaliers for the rest of the season, but after that, his future is up in the air. He wants to win and the Cavs want to win. If both parties get what they want in that regard, I figure that they'll be able to come to an agreement on an extension to keep Deng in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.