Having one of the latter three would not necessarily be a bad thing (as I put second-tir in quotes to emphasize that all 3 of those guys are really great players, and not second-tier at all), all three would make the Bulls a much better team next season ... BUT would wind up hurting the Bulls in the long-term. This post will (hopefully) explain why, and (see title of post) why that will eventually force the Bulls to trade Luol Deng to keep Joakim Noah. So with that as background, here we go!
First, we have to look at the general composition of an NBA team in terms of salary structure. The salary cap and player contracts make all of this very complex but for my purposes, I will dumb it down. Basically, each team can afford to have two maximum contracts and one other very-near-max contract (or some similar combination), then fill in the remainder with smaller contracts (read: role players). To illustrate my point, let's use the NBA Champs from last year - the LA Lakers:
Salaries (from basketball-reference.com)
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Rk Player Salary
1 Kobe Bryant $21,262,500
2 Pau Gasol $15,106,000
3 Lamar Odom $14,148,596
4 Derek Fisher $4,700,000
5 Sasha Vujacic $4,524,887
6 Luke Walton $4,420,000
7 Adam Morrison $4,159,200
8 Trevor Ariza $3,100,000
9 Andrew Bynum $2,769,300
10 Jordan Farmar $1,080,000
They followed the basic idea: three really big contracts and a bunch of role players. There are obvious exceptions to this "rule" - such as the runner-up from last year, the Orlando Magic:
Salaries (from basketball-reference.com)
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Rk Player Salary
1 Rashard Lewis $16,447,871
2 Dwight Howard $13,758,000
3 Jameer Nelson $7,700,000
4 Hedo Turkoglu $6,864,200
5 Tony Battie $5,746,000
6 Mickael Pietrus $5,300,000
7 Rafer Alston $4,900,000
8 Tyronn Lue $2,250,000
9 J.J. Redick $2,139,720
10 Anthony Johnson $1,910,000
The Magic basically had 2 big contracts, then two smaller deals that were the equivalent of the third big contract in my "rule". So you get the idea.
Stay with me, there is a point to all of this. Let's look at the Chicago Bulls! The Bulls finally have a marquee player, our first alpha dog (could-be-the-best-player-on-a-title-contender level player) since MJ. Other than carrying my hopes and dreams as a basketball fan, D-Rose will also be carrying a very fat wallet ... from signing an NBA maximum contract when he is eligible. And I know it's early, but I can confidently say that the Bulls would be dumb to let him walk without offering him max money at any point in the next 12 years. So we can be pretty certain that Rose will get a max deal in 2013-14 (and will make over $9million the last year of his rookie deal). So thinking long-term, that ties up 1/3 of the Bulls max/near-max contracts.
Next, let's look at Luol Deng (and his $71 million contract). During the last year of Rose's current contract (2012-13) and the first year of Rose's assumed next contract (2013-14) Deng is set to make $13.3 and $14.3 million respectively. There is only a 2 year overlap under Deng's current contract - so we can trade him before then, re-sign him to a new deal, or let him walk. (Note1: I doubt that someone coming off a 6year/$71m contract will want to sign for a contract worth half that amount.) (Note2: I am 100% certain that good/great NBA teams do not let talent walk away for nothing, and I am opposed to that outcome, as I've said before.) So basically, we re-sign Luol to a similar deal, or trade him before that time comes (more on this later).
Finally, we have to look at Joakim Noah (see, I am slowly going to make sense of this eventually). Let me get this out of the way, I hated Joakim Noah when he was at Florida. I even hated him the night he was drafted by the Bulls. And you can see why ...
But as a kool-aid drinking Bulls lover, I convinced myself to give JoaNoah a chance. Over the past couple years, I have grown to love him both on and off the floor. Grown to Love because of things like this:
Even before this season started, I said this of Noah: "The Bulls actually have a good, young center. He might not be the best at any one facet of the game, but he gives the Bulls what they need. Energy, hustle, defense, passion ... he's our intangibles guy, and he's a great one. Henry Abbott (ESPN TrueHoop) recently stated: "Joakim Noah will never be beat in the race to congratulate a teammate." What a compliment." (From my Season Preview) And that was before he started grabbing more boards than anyone in the league not named Dwight Howard.
So maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but doesn't all of this point to JoaNoah being one of the Bulls max/near-max contracts after his rookie deal? I ranked him as the 9th best center before this season started, and again, he is currently second in the league in rebounding! At the time, I thought I was being a bit of a homer and ranking him too high, but now - I think he would be close to the top 5!
Plus, we have to consider that he is only 24 years old. He is a young, talented center that can grow and mature next to our young, talented point guard. (Look how the Zombie-Sonics have put a bunch of young talent around KD - and how much they love playing together.) He is the new Dennis Rodman, I hated/despised/loathed him on the Pistons, but when he came to the Bulls I embraced him. Other fans HATE Joakim Noah, just ask Bill Simmons:
There's hate and there's sports hate. Real hate is not OK. Sports hate is OK. We are fans. We are allowed to "love" certain athletes and "hate" others. It doesn't mean we actually love them or hate them. So under that umbrella, I present you with the following statement: I hate Joakim Noah. I hate looking at him. I hate his hair. I hate how he dunks. I hate the way he high-fives. I hate every reaction he has. I hate his game. I hate the way announcers pronounce his name. I hate the story that I've heard a million times about his tennis-playing father.
But as Bulls fans, we love and embrace him, just ask Kmart: "This is where I am now. I love Joakim Noah. I think with a serious off-season of hitting the weight room (instead of drinking henessy, smoking pot and eating cheetos with his "doggs") he could become a great player. Two months ago, when trade rumors were swirling for Amare, I would have traded Noah long before Tyrus. Now... there's no way."
And Kmart said that before Noah had his defining moment/game as a Bull (perhaps the greatest moment for any Bull since #23 was raised to the rafters of the UC). Game 6 against Boston in the playoffs last season - read my postgame reaction. (Note: it's barely coherent - my head was spinning, I was drenched in sweat and half-drunk, but it was one of the best games I've ever seen ... and JoaNoah had the defining play of that game (and the series.))
So now that we've covered why every Bulls fan should love Joakim Noah, we can get to why it matters. Joakim Noah is a great, young center ... as I've said before, he's not the best scorer and his game needs work. But he's young, talented, aggressive and can hold his own with any center in the league (Bulls fans have NEVER been able to say that before!). Maybe it's too soon right now, but Joakim Noah can be the third best player on a championship team. That's what separates him from Luol Deng ... I am confident that the Bulls could win a title building around Rose, playerX and Noah. I don't have that same confidence if Deng is the third player on that list.
So we are faced with one of two problems:
(1) Assuming we sign (read: overpay) for someone like Joe Johnson, Amare or Rudy Gay next summer, we are stuck with Rose, Deng and Player-X from that group. Those would be the Bulls 3 big contracts, which leaves us without the ability to sign Joakim to the big contract that he will be expecting (and will deserve).
(2) If we do not sign one of those players, we will have money to lock up Noah, leaving us with a core of Rose, Noah and Deng. This is great if we intend to remain a 42-48 win team that never seriously contends for a title, but not-so-great if we want to win a title.
Luol Deng is/will be the Bulls third big contract, but is not the third best on championship team. A somewhat-but-not-super athletic small forward who can rain 18-footers, but cannot create for himself or make 3s is just not going to put you over the top. (I love Luol, and had pretty high expectations this year: "If Luol does return to his form of 3 years ago, when he was widely considered a lock to be a future all-star, where does that get the Bulls? If D-Rose, TT and JoaNoah continue to develop and Luol is a stud, can the Bulls win 50 games? 51? 52? I don't see why not.") But let's be honest ... he's just never going to be the third best on a title team. To steal from Kmart in a recent email: "Also you're not winning a title if Luol Deng is your third best player. Not now. Not ever. His ceiling is pretty much Tashaun Prince, and he was the 4th or 5th best player on one of the least talented teams to win an NBA championship in the last 2 decades".
So there you have it. The Bulls will not contend for a title if we keep Deng, Rose and Noah as our "Big 3." In signing Deng to that big (terrible) contract and going after a big free agent after this season, the Bulls might be squeezing out their second best player, and the best/only chance we have at a championship. That is why the Bulls need to figure out a way to trade Deng, aloowing us to truly contend for a title with a core of Rose, playerX and Joakim Noah.