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It's a question of Independence and Britain for Luol Deng
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 17
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
Maybe we all can learn something from those original dunkers from Boston. The guys who slammed the tea. They seemed to know how to handle the British.
The Bulls host the champion Boston Celtics Tuesday, and once again will be without the injured Luol Deng in this important stretch run for a playoff spot.
But it looks increasingly as if Great Britain will have Deng this summer for it’s European championships.
It’s one of the most troublesome and confusing issues that is quietly befuddling many NBA teams, and now the Bulls.
How can you not let your players compete for their countries in international competitions, especially when the U.S. has put so much time and effort into it’s international effort with USA Basketball? But it remains a huge risk because of the potential for injury, as the San Antonio Spurs continue to discover with Manu Ginobili still failing to recover from an ankle injury suffered in international play last summer.
A major injury to a key player of your team—and generally only the best players compete for their countries—could cripple a team’s chances at a time when the player is being paid by his NBA team yet risking injury playing for some government federation.
Yet, so called “globalization” in the NBA has become a priority and NBA commissioner David Stern has urged all teams to allow their players to compete.
Yet, what of a player like Deng, who might sit out for the rest of this season with a potential stress fracture, then recover and before joining the team again play for his adopted country, Great Britain, and perhaps again risk injury.
Deng is not out for the season and recuperating now. The team still expects him to return before the end of the regular season, but no one has a timetable as the injury healing time is difficult to estimate.
But summer participation after perhaps missing much of the season is an intriguing question and one which may become the so called 800-pound elephant in the room for Deng and the Bulls. The London Times reported Monday that even Deng’s private training coach, the respected David Thorpe, advised Deng not to compete this summer to rest his injury.
Ian Whittell, who is the journalist closest to Deng and writes for British publications about the NBA, quoted Thorpe saying:
“I recommended to him that he take the whole summer off and not even train with me. But Luol told me that was not acceptable. There is no way he is not going to help GB in some capacity. He will maybe not play as many friendlies (warmup, exhibition types games before the September competition). He will maybe adjust his schedule after consulting with Coach (Chris) Finch and coming up with a plan that makes sense for everybody. Luol feels a sense of duty as far as GB is concerned but he also loves playing for the team and in the style that Coach Finch plays. That’s what’s driving Lu on and as soon as he is healthy, we will sit down with doctors from the Bulls and from GB to come up with a plan.”
Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and director of the Pro Training Center at IMG, where Deng trains in the summers with many other NBA players.
I caught up with Thorpe Tuesday and he said he risked the wrath of Great Britain—hey, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin did as well—by suggesting Deng step back one summer. But Thorpe also said he fully understands why Deng almost needs to play for his adopted country.
Before last season, Deng had missed four games in two seasons and had played for Great Britain both summers.
“My advice,” said Thorpe, “was to rest and he said, ‘Coach, I felt amazing those two years. I understand the need not to a tax my body too much. But this country saved my life, my family’s life.’ It was a hard life, not a fun life (leaving Sudan and Egypt). He loves Great Britain and feels passionate about it.
“He notes that the guys who don’t play for their countries in the summer play just as much in pickup ball games and he can control things with the national team,” said Thorpe. “It’s a good point. He’s thought about it and understands his commitment to the Bulls for what they’ve done for him (with a new contract). But it’s also important for him both mentally to be involved and keep his game in shape and his philosophy about his life.”
The Bulls have generally declined to comment, as most teams have. Mavs owner Mark Cuban first raised the issue regarding Dirk Nowitzki’s play and Cuban supposedly got an earful from the league.
Also, the players often are under pressure from their home or native countries to play. So it becomes difficult to say no. Plus, teams are wary of offending their top players by denying them a chance to compete for and represent their countries. Especially when U.S. players routinely compete in the Olympics for USA Basketball, which has the endorsement of the NBA with Jerry Colangelo actively recruiting players with the league’s blessing.
Last summer, the Great Britain federation had to pay for Deng’s insurance because of a preexisting condition, and they did. It is assumed they will again since he is their best player and with the Olympics in London in 2012 basketball is being made a priority.
But what of the Bulls, who recently signed Deng to a six year $71 million deal?
Deng doesn’t play for the Bulls while he heals from a potentially serious injury, and then plays for someone other than the Bulls and risks injury again?
It puts the team in an uncomfortable position.
No team, if they are honest, wants their players involved in international play because of that risk. Injuries happen all the time, but do you suppose the Bucks are happy Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut played this summer? Is it a coincidence those are the two players they have who are injured?
Sure, Kobe and LeBron and Wade and Chris Paul and Dwight Howard played, and they’re fine, and MVP candidates.
But Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer played and have been hurt on an off much of the season. It has set the Jazz back considerably.
Dirk is fine and so is Pau. But Manu seems questionable even for the post season now. The Spurs have no chance without him.
Now comes Deng, who has the ready made excuse to tell Great Britain that he has been injured and needs to recuperate. Yet, it seems he is going to play.
What should the Bulls do? What can the Bulls do?
Is it worth alienating one of your top players? And would the NBA even allow you to do so?
I don’t know how fans feel about this. I’d like to see Deng rest and be ready for next season with the hope the team can make a major step forward. And, despite an unsettled season trying to fit in with a rookie point guard and coach, I think Deng can work well with Rose because Deng likes to get out and run the court. But maybe some feel the extra game condition work in September actually will be helpful and have Deng in better condition for the start of the season and perhaps in a positive mood after playing for Great Britain, which he clearly enjoys. And would it embarrass Deng to skip the European games and then be there in October when the Bulls play an exhibition game in London? And why deny a player the chance to support his country and be patriotic when we won’t do that with our players? And might condemn them if they took the easy/injury way out.
This one may not make anyone happy.