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Columnist
Stalemate with Deng could soon turn dangerous for Bulls
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist

Loul Deng

 

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Published: 7/21/2008 10:18 AM

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In contract negotiations, there is a time to play hardball and other occasions when it's best to lob a soft underhand toss toward home plate.

The Bulls need to settle on the proper velocity soon, or they could be forced to make significant roster changes before the start of training camp.

Predictions were heard the past two years that the Bulls would quickly settle on a new contract with forward Luol Deng. But the two sides are headed into the sixth month of negotiations and still not close to an agreement.

When faced with these situations in the past, the Bulls would make an offer and tell the player if he thinks he's worth more, go out and collect an offer sheet from another team. The cap room around the NBA is pretty much gone this summer, so no offer sheet is forthcoming. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Bulls have the upper hand in negotiations.

Deng will have some quality options if he decides to sign the one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. How does joining a Portland starting lineup of Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Jerryd Bayless sound?

The Blazers are a dangerous opponent for the Bulls right now, because they have an opening for Deng on the floor and will have cap room next year when Raef LaFrentz and Steve Francis come off the books.

Portland is one of several teams expected to have significant cap room in 2009. If Deng or fellow restricted free agent Ben Gordon take the qualifying offer, they are probably as good as gone after one more awkward, lame-duck season in Chicago.

So what is the best move for the Bulls right now? Raise their offers to Deng and Gordon? Try to trim the payroll by trading other players? Explore sign-and-trade scenarios so as not to lose the two free agents for nothing next year? Let them walk away and pursue other free agents the next two summers?

The Bulls are not alone in their dilemma. There are currently seven significant unsigned restricted free agents around the league. Besides Deng and Gordon, the others are Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Charlotte's Emeka Okafor, Atlanta's Josh Smith, along with Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins of Golden State.

Maybe if some of those players sign and begin to set a market price, it will be easier for the Bulls to come to terms with their own guys.

Here's another issue: Based solely on last season, when the Bulls stumbled to a 33-49 record, Deng and Gordon would probably sit near the bottom of the list if those restricted free agents were ranked by value (Ellis averaged 20.2 points, don't forget). But consider their entire four years in the NBA and the two Bulls would be at the top.

The Bulls have no desire to pay the league's luxury tax and have only about $17.2 million of cushion to spend on Deng and Gordon next year before becoming a tax team. Then again, the reason the team's payroll is so high is because the decision to sign Ben Wallace to a $60-million deal two years ago backfired.

Who should pay for that mistake? Forbes Magazine estimated recently that the Bulls have been the NBA's most profitable franchise of this decade, and ticket prices have already gone up for next season.

Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has taken a prominent role in the Deng negotiations and promoted the idea of adding incentives to the contract, just as the Bulls did with Tyson Chandler in 2005. Still, there has been little progress. One potential compromise is a shorter contract length, most likely three years.

In any NBA trade, the salaries that change sides have to match within 25% (unless one of the teams is under the cap or owns a trade exception). So the Bulls could only trim a couple of million off the payroll at best by moving Andres Nocioni or Kirk Hinrich.

There figures to be an avid trade market for Deng if it comes to that. Portland would probably be willing to give back Channing Frye and Travis Outlaw, which isn't a great option. It's conceivable Dallas would offer Josh Howard for Deng or Detroit might swap Tayshaun Prince.

Gordon's trade value is tougher to estimate since fewer teams have a need at shooting guard. Both Deng and Gordon would like to have something settled before joining the Great Britain national team for European championship qualifying in September.

When last season ended, this figured to be a summer where anything was possible for the Bulls and so far, nothing has changed.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com