The Chicago Bulls forged some serious regular season triumphs this year, though a January 21 win over the Charlotte Bobcats probably isn't a memory anyone is currently holding dear. The Bulls improved to 15-3 that night with a 95-89 road victory over a Charlotte squad that would go on to secure the worst winning percentage in league history. But if a win over a team as punchless as the Bobcats could ever be termed 'gutsy', this was it.
The Bulls were without Derrick Rose, who was battling turf toe, the first in a long list of injuries that would eventually sabotage the 2011-2012 season. Joakim Noah sat out too, this time with a left ankle sprain. Also missing were reserves Taj Gibson (ankle sprain) and John Lucas III (groin strain). Still, the Bulls had "more than enough to win with" months before their relentless coach's war cry proved to be doomed.
Small forward Luol Deng turned in a titan of a performance. Deng finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the win. He played 40 minutes, as even against a historically lowly team like Charlotte, coach Tom Thibodeau refused to ease off the gas pedal. After the game, it was determined Deng had torn ligaments in his left wrist during the victory. Who knows how much further damage Deng did to his wrist by staying on the court that night.
Deng would miss the next seven games before returning to the Chicago lineup. He was advised to have surgery to fully repair his wrist, a procedure that would have sidelined him for about three months. Deng saw something special brewing with his team and opted to gut it out. He didn't want to jeopardize his availability for what was seeming to be a long playoff run. When asked about the injury, Deng talked only about dealing with the pain. He put the team before his own health, because with him in the lineup, the team had a chance at winning the championship.
Deng would play the rest of the season with the injury. As the regular season concluded, it was Deng who led the NBA in minutes at 39.4 per game. Whether it's more of a testament to Deng's toughness and sacrifice or his head coach's own maniacal way of dealing with injuries is up for debate, but the small forward's fortitude isn't. It never was.
Luol Deng has come so far, and we're not yet beginning to get into his astounding backstory. It wasn't long ago that Deng's $71 million contract was viewed as a title-preventing albatross. Think: Alfonso Soriano, Ben Wallace, and current teammate Carlos Boozer. If Deng's contract doesn't look like a bargain now, it's certainly impossible to argue he's overpaid. NBA players: they make lots of money. Deng isn't the only one.
Deng has given the Bulls everything over the past two years. To deem him the 'glue guy' almost reads as a diss. Glue guys aren't supposed to double as All-Stars. This season, that's exactly what Deng became for the first time in his career. While some argued the honor wasn't fully deserved, no one could discount the small forward's contributions to the team since Thibodeau took over two seasons ago.
There's a reason Deng plays so much: the Bulls desperately need him. His size, instincts and versatility has helped make him the best defensive player on the NBA's best defensive team. He also developed a three-point stroke the moment he seemed doomed to a life of shooting long twos. On a Bulls roster devoid of shot creators and shot makers outside of Rose, he is one of the few players capable of going off for 20 points on a given night. Was Deng better during Thibodeau's first season? Of course, but the fact that he was even on the court this past one -- and still playing an absurd amount of minutes at a high level -- can't be discounted. Luol Deng makes the Bulls go.
This is why it's a shame that Deng's dedication to the team is now being called into question. Deng will put off the wrist surgery he likely needs for a few more months to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics this August. Deng will be the focal point of host country Great Britain, a basketball team which will compete in the Olympics for the first time since 1948. This means Deng could be out of the Bulls' lineup until December.
Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh wrote a largely fair and level-headed column on Monday about the bind the Bulls find themselves in. The only thing I disagree with is the opinion at the end.
With Rose slated to miss at least the first few months of next season as he recovers from the torn ACL that prematurely ended Chicago's playoff run, the Bulls are within right to urge Deng to consider skipping the Olympics to make it back in time for the start of the 2012-2013 campaign. It's what any smart business would do. As Haugh wrote:
I understand England gave Deng and his family the opportunity of a lifetime. But the Bulls gave Deng generational wealth in 2008 when they signed him to a $71 million contract. Deng's $13.3 million salary calls for him to make $162,000 per game next season. I doubt he plans to pay back the Bulls for any games he misses by opting to delay surgery.
It's hard to argue with the logic here, and any Bulls fan would certainly want Deng back on the court for Chicago at full strength as early as possible. This team has already dealt with too many damn injuries. But if anyone has earned a special exception, it's Deng. He's going to play in Summer Olympics, and Chicago shouldn't hold it against him. We should be proud of him.
It's a honor that clearly means a lot to Deng. As he recently said after the Bulls were eliminated:
I just know I’ve got the Olympics ahead of me, since I was a kid growing up, it's something I always wanted an opportunity to be part of. the fact that it’s in my hometown that I grew up in a country that gave me opportunity to even be here, I’m looking forward to it."
For Deng, playing in the Olympics would be a culmination of an often frantic life journey that brought him to Chicago in 2004. He came so far to get here.
Deng grew up in war-torn Sudan, where his father was a member of parliament. Trapped in a civil war, Deng's parents fled to seek political asylum in England. After a spending a few years in Egypt, Deng was reunited with his parents in London at age nine. That's when his basketball career began to take off.
By now, you know the story: Deng's first love was soccer, but he was too tall. Instead, Deng was taught basketball by fellow Dinka tribe member Manute Bol. When he came to the United States at 14 to play high school hoops at New Jersey's Blair Academy with Charlie Villanueva, he was already on the radar of NBA scouts. After one season at Duke, Deng was chosen by the Bulls with the seventh pick in the 2004 draft. He seems like he's been around forever, but he's just now entering his prime. He's only 27. His story is still being written. He also has a reputation as one of the NBA's true good guys, as he's involved in numerous charity ventures in Africa and the UK.
The opportunity in front of Deng is not only deeply meaningful on a personal level, it's also exceedingly rare. He's been rumored to carry the country's flag during opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Can Bulls fans really fault him for choosing to delay his surgery for a few months in good faith?
I don't think so. Besides, Deng would be scheduled to return to the Bulls before Christmas. He'll have more than enough time to recover and be ready to go when Rose returns and the Bulls start making another playoff run. The Bulls aren't going to miss the postseason even if Deng sits out until December. They could be the best No. 5 seed in a long time. And as these Bulls have proven the last two season, seeding isn't as important as health.
Haugh's column ends with a simple question:
Who deserves Deng's allegiance more, the Bulls or the Brits?
Though complicated, to me one simple question answers another: Who signs his checks?
Under normal circumstances, sure. But if anyone has earned a special pass, it's Deng.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.