In a recent Instagram Live interview with Carol Tshabalala, Bulls great Luol Deng opened up about his trade from the team to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2014.
Deng stressed his gratitude for the 10-year tenure he carved out in Chicago multiple times in the conversation, and the role Tom Thibodeau played in him establishing himself as a do-it-all star in the NBA. But he was clear that he felt betrayed by the way contract negotiations and eventual trade talks played out from the management side, in part because of how much playing for the Bulls, a lifelong dream of his, meant to him in the first place.
“When I got traded, I remember I felt betrayed,” Deng told Tshabalala. “Because the guy who traded me obviously ruined the team — and I don’t mind saying that now, I would never speak about him as a person — but just the decisions that he’s made. Because it changed the whole course of what we were trying to do. When Derrick got hurt, we really felt that we were going to win a championship, but when he broke up the team, you just feel hurt because we became so close as a team. But we had a mission. And that was to wait for Derrick to get healthy and go at it again, but he decided to just break up the team.”
Deng didn’t directly say who he was referring to over the course of the above comments, but when Tshabalala followed up to ask exactly what happened during his breakup with the Bulls, he recalled Gar Forman leading the contract deliberations that ultimately culminated in him being dealt.
“I gave up a lot of money to stay with the Bulls,” Deng said to Tshabalala, alluding to a past contract (presumably, a six-year, $71 million extension he inked as a 23-year-old in 2008) he said he signed with the team against the wishes of some in his camp, who wanted him to explore more lucrative options elsewhere. “So when they came back again for my next contract, the year before the contract, me and Thibs went in and we talked to Gar Forman, (who) at the time was the GM, and we said, I want to sign right now before the free agency comes up and other people offer money. And at the time, he said — I was 27? 28? — he told me to take another team discount.
“And I remember saying, ‘Why would I take another team discount? Why is there a discount again?’ You know, because this is when I was an All-Star. So he said, ‘We want you to take a team discount.’ So I was like, ‘OK, what’s a team discount?’ and he didn’t discuss anything. And at the time, it didn’t make sense for where I’m at, at the best of my career.”
Deng was eventually traded to the Cavaliers on Jan. 7, 2014, midway through the expiring year of that aforementioned six-year contract. And indeed, he entered the 2013-14 campaign fresh off two consecutive All-Star selections in seasons he combined to average 16 points, 6.4 rebounds and an NBA-leading 39 minutes per game. In 23 games with the Bulls in 2013-14 before the trade, Deng averaged 19 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on a career high 25.1% usage rate.
According to reports at the time, ownership had mandated the Bulls get under the luxury tax line after Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee in November 2013, effectively quashing the team’s title hopes for that year. In line with that order, reports indicate that the Bulls offered Deng an extension that averaged a roughly $10 million annual salary over “three or four years,” which Deng declined.
To hear Deng tell it, Thibodeau fiercely advocated for him throughout.
“Thibs was upset, and Thibs kept telling them (the front office), ‘Sign Lu, I need you to sign Lu,’” Deng told Tshabalala. “So when the [2013-14 season] started, I wasn’t signed for the Bulls, and Thibs decided he was going to make them know how important I am for the team, and ran everything through me — and this is why I love Thibs still today... I was averaging 20 (points per game) at the time when I got traded. When the front office saw that I was averaging 20, obviously now, everybody wanted to pay me more money. So they decided that it was better to trade me before they lose me for nothing.
“So I was called into the office and I was given two days to take $30 million for three years, or else. I decided to go with ‘or else.’”
The Bulls netted Andrew Bynum, who they immediately waived, and three conditional draft picks, which eventually became Jordan Bell (flipped to the Golden State Warriors for cash considerations), Sir’Dominic Pointer and Paul Zipser, in the transaction. Deng finished out the 2013-14 season in Cleveland, then signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Miami Heat that summer, with a player option on the second year that he eventually exercised. A $72 million payout from the Los Angeles Lakers and a stop with the Minnesota Timberwolves followed before he officially retired in October 2019 after signing a one-day contract with the Bulls.
Deng remains the fourth-leading scorer in Bulls franchise history, top five steals and minutes played, and is one of just five players (along with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Jerry Sloan and Tom Boerwinkle) to begin a 10th season with the team. His legacy was honored in a ceremony attended by many from the Baby Bull and Thibodeau eras during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 20 at the United Center.