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Missing Luol

The last time Luol Deng wasn’t on the Chicago Bulls, I hadn’t even turned 12 years old yet.

The NBA was barely even on my radar back then,  but that year (2004-05) the Bulls made the playoffs for the first time since MJ, so I followed along. I remember Kirk Hinrich before he was encased in neoprene, Eddy Curry before he ate himself out of the league, Tyson Chandler before he became the defensive linchpin we all know today, Ben Gordon going bonkers off the bench, Andres Nocioni being all gritty and whatnot, and Deng…well, Luol was much the same player then that he is now.

That year, Deng started 45 games for a team that finished third in the East* and averaged about 15 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference. In 2012-13, the second of two consecutive all-star seasons for Luol, he averaged about 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per 36 minutes. Make of that what you will.

*The Bulls got the fourth seed that year and lost to the Washington Wizards because the NBA hadn’t changed the rule that gave the top three seeds in each conference to the division winners. Two years later, they would finish third again, but receive the fifth seed because the Cleveland Cavaliers finished ahead of them and the NBA only allows one non-division winner to move into the top four. The lesson, as always: divisions are silly.

My point, of course, is that Luol Deng means a lot to us Bulls fans. We’ve fake-traded him too many times to count, but we love him. We love his consistency, we love his personality, we love his intensity… and then suddenly, there’s this:

There are so many things wrong with this picture I almost don’t know where to start. The 8 on his chest, the maroon and gold, the city…it’s just so wrong. I’m really not OK with Luol Deng on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The hardest part is that we basically saw this coming, but we didn’t see this coming. It’s been clear for months that Deng would be moving on this summer. He’s getting older, and the Bulls are owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who is notorious for his unwillingness to spend money on his basketball team. His baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, is another story, but that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve known forever that Deng likely wouldn’t be back next season, especially once Derrick Rose went down again, but we always assumed it would be either right at the deadline or in the summer. Not, you know, shortly before midnight on January 6, out of the clear blue sky.

It’s one thing when your team trades its longest-tenured player. It’s another when that player happens to be Luol Deng.

I mean…how do you not love this guy? This is a guy who insisted before last season that he be introduced as from South Sudan instead of Duke after South Sudan gained its independence. Every person who’s ever so much as been in the same room as Deng raves about him. When he was traded, Joakim Noah straight up refused to speak to the media. Joakim Noah has never refused to speak to the media in his life, but that’s how much he loved Luol.

In this piece by KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Deng says he just wishes he’d gotten a chance to say goodbye to his teammates, and everyone else who works for the team.

Deng saw the comments his teammates made in the wake of his trade, the ones that made it clear he’ll be remembered for more than being a two-time All-Star. He appreciated those.

“I wish (the trade) was face-to-face so I could say good-bye to my teammates,” Deng said. “I had to call them and talk to each one. There are workers at the stadium, people at the Berto, I wanted to say good-bye face-to-face. After nine or 10 years, those are not just people you work with. Some of them, I’m closer to them than teammates. The way I went down, I wish it wasn’t a phone call.”

So, this sucks. I wish things had played out differently, I wish Deng was still a Bull, I wish I wish I wish. But as hard as this is now, it’s going to get even harder.

If you’ve followed the Bulls for a while, you probably already know this, but I’m going to explain it anyway. The Bulls are notorious for dragging their departing players through the muck after they leave. According to any number of reports, Deng turned down a three year, $30 million extension before the trade. Boom. There’s your “he wasn’t willing to sacrifice for the good of the team” narrative. It will probably get worse than that.

You think I’m exaggerating? Surely the Bulls wouldn’t do that to someone as classy as Luol Deng, you say, because you’re a strawman whom I’ve created solely for the purpose of making this point.** Oh but they would. In fact, they did it WHILE HE WAS STILL ON THE TEAM in 2009. Deng had a leg injury that was keeping him out of the lineup, and the Bulls straight up issued a press release calling him out and basically telling him to suck it up. Unfortunately, that press release no longer exists, but I can show you this article about it. If they did it back then, why wouldn’t they do it now?

**Also, don’t call me Shirley.

That’s where this is at.

I wish nothing but the best for Luol. He leaves as a borderline legend in Chicago, someone who absolutely deserves to have his number retired someday. He’s scored the fourth-most points in franchise history, behind only Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love. I don’t really like the Cavaliers, as a general rule, but I really hope they can put together a deep playoff run for Deng. He deserves it.

For now, though, I guess I just have to deal with it.

Miss u, Lu.

Caleb Nordgren

Caleb is a proud Chicagoan still adjusting to life away from the big city. He's a journalism student at Michigan State, the Editor of Pippen Ain't Easy and can be found at any given time on Twitter, talking about basketball and generally being sarcastic.