Picturing The Chicago Bulls Without Luol Deng

Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng

Apr 29, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) drives around Brooklyn Nets small forward Gerald Wallace (45) during the first quarter in game five of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at the Barclays Center. Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Without the latter syllable, the name Luol isn’t too far off from rhyming with “blue.” Lu, blue. In many ways, both entities have come to define the Chicago Bulls for the last handful of years. Though this is Rose’s team―and Joakim Noah is the city’s grating, 3rd rail-powered public transportation system come alive―Deng represents the blue-collar ties to their bastion best.

He’s a two-time All-Star now and yet most might still forget about him. Though Deng won’t admit it, his best years are behind him (mostly squandered by Vinny Del Negro) yet it is now that the league has started to recognize his contributions. This from a guy who save from an atrocious three-point percentage had a phenomenal year as a 21-year-old worthy of an All-Star nod then. Read it: 18.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.2 STLPG on 51.7 percent shooting. But through it all he’s worked diligently and has kept the complaints at a minimum.

Despite all that, it looks like the Deng era is just around the Mag Mile corner. The contract extension talks between the forward and management are dead. Chatter puts Jimmy Butler as his eventual replacement and one that comes at a more affordable price. With the kind of money Deng would want and the bloated salaries already on the books, Bulls brass doesn’t want to foot the bill for another tax-burdened year. It would seem that it makes more sense to just let him (and also Carlos Boozer) walk.

The consensus is that Butler can step in for Deng and Nikola Mirotic, a promising Euroleague player the Bulls have dibs on, can make up the Boozer difference.

A potential starting lineup in 2014-15 could then look like one of the following:

1. Derrick Rose (PG) – ?????? (SG) – Jimmy Butler (SF) – Nikola Mirotic (PF) – Joakim Noah (C)

2. Derrick Rose (PG) – Jimmy Butler (SG) – Taj Gibson (SF) – Nikola Mirotic (PF) – Joakim Noah (C)

3. Derrick Rose (PF) – Jimmy Butler (SG) – Nikola Mirotic (SF) – Taj Gibson (PF) – Joakim Noah (C)

The first puts Chicago where it’s been the past three years: without a prospective shooting guard. Considering that 2-guards are a dime a dozen nowadays it might not be an easy task to find one to bolster that lineup.

Number two is better and would help justify Gibson’s 8-million-dollar-a-year salary, which he gets now as a sub. It’s better than option one but not exactly optimal as Gibson doesn’t have the toolset to play at the 3 position, especially on the offensive side.

The third is one that isn’t discussed much but which could be the best road to travel down. Mirotic is a Dirk Nowitzki-esque stretch four who can shoot the three really well and is a bit more physical than the German. Sliding him over to the 3 would put Gibson in a better position to succeed and would still play to Mirotic’s favor. A 6’10” small forward also isn’t unheard of as Paul George is said to have grown into that height and Kevin Durant isn’t much smaller. But then you wonder if Mirotic can guard guys like Carmelo and LeBron for 40-plus minutes.

In all scenarios though, the Bulls suits are essentially taking on two major gambles. The first is that Butler can live up to Deng’s legacy while being the second or third option Rose needs to reach the NBA Finals. And the second is that Mirotic’s game translates to the NBA well enough to remain a contender. All three potential lineups are also going to take time to adjust and you start to wonder if Rose plans on sticking around to watch management pick colors for a new coat of paint.

For Boozer, despite his shortcomings, it will be tough to match his per-36 numbers (2012-13):

FG%

FT%

3P%

TO

STLPG

BLKPG

APG

RPG

PPG

47.7

73.1

0.00

2.5

0.9

0.4

2.5

10.9

18.1

Mirotic’s per-40 stats combined for the Euroleague and ACB play aren’t exactly better (though you have to love that three-point shooting):

FG%

FT%

3P%

TO

STLPG

BLKPG

APG

RPG

PPG

48.9

82.5

37.1

2.3

1.45

1.35

1.5

8.9

19.5

The added bonuses with Mirotic, however, is that he would only be 23 years old at the start of the 2014 season and would come at a more affordable rate than the aging Boozer.

With Deng and Butler, their per-36 numbers for last season weren’t starkly different, which is exactly why the Bulls are in this pickle.

Deng

FG%

FT%

3P%

TO

STLPG

BLKPG

APG

RPG

PPG

42.6

81.6

32.2

1.8

1.0

0.4

2.8

5.9

15.3

Butler

FG%

FT%

3P%

TO

STLPG

BLKPG

APG

RPG

PPG

46.7

80.3

38.1

1.0

1.3

0.5

1.9

5.5

11.9

But the bigger question is: can Butler live up to what Deng was at his prime?

At age 22, a year younger than what Butler was last year, Deng had a much better year than Butler did in 2012-13.

FG%

FT%

3P%

TO

STLPG

BLKPG

APG

RPG

PPG

47.9

77.0

36.4

2.0

1.0

0.5

2.6

6.7

18.1

Deng has never been able to emulate the success of his third and fourth years in the NBA but there’s also no indication that Butler can either. You can argue that you don’t exactly need Butler to but then the question becomes: who is going to be the Bulls’ number two option? Noah? Dunleavy? Not exactly.

The plus side in all of this lies in advanced stats. Though he didn’t even have a full year to fit into his role, Butler posted a Win Share per 48 of .158. Deng has only had one season where he’s posted better and that was seven years ago. Butler’s WS/48 for his rookie year, .144, would be Deng’s third-best WS/48 of his career. Also, Butler’s TS% of 57.4 is something that Deng has never, I repeat, never been able to achieve. Deng has also never posted Offensive Rebound Percentages of 7.3 or 7.2 as Jimmy Buckets has. Most tantalizing is that Butler had an Offensive Rating of 121 when Deng has never reached past 112. At an average usage of 14.6%, Buckets has also been underutilized when compared to his superior.

If this is in fact a trend, Jimmy Butler might then be the perfect complement to Rose: a highly-effective wing player, who turns over the ball little, wins at a high percentage, shoots well overall, can shoot the three, cause havoc on D, is rated very highly offensively, and can clean up any missed Rose drive. Perhaps Bulls management know exactly what they’re doing after all.

Stats come courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise linked to or noted.

Related
Bogar Alonso is a dedicated student of the hardwood, soccer pitch, boxing ring, and tennis court. He is a regular NBA contributor to XN Sports. His work, involving more than just sports, has appeared on The Creators Project, A&E Networks, XXL Magazine, and others. Follow Bogar on Twitter @blacktiles