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Bulls players upset about losing Luol Deng, possible ‘rebuild’

Updated: January 7, 2014 10:13PM

Center Joakim Noah declined to comment. Backup big man Taj Gibson admitted he was ticked off. And coach Tom Thibodeau, when asked if his opinion about the trade of forward Luol Deng was contrary to that of upper management, simply said: ‘‘We discussed it. I’m
going to leave it at that.’’

It wasn’t an easy Tuesday morning for the Bulls in the wake of the trade late Monday that sent Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for center Andrew Bynum and three draft picks. By making the move, the Bulls essentially admitted what they were doing this season wasn’t working, especially with star Derrick Rose lost for the season after having surgery on his right knee.

With general manager Gar Forman scouting out of town, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson had to answer the difficult questions. And while his news conference lasted 35 minutes,
it boiled down to the trade being about giving the Bulls financial flexibility moving forward.

The deal was made possible when Deng, who will be eligible for free agency after the season, rejected the Bulls’ latest offer on a contract extension last week. A source said the sides were $4 million to
$5 million per season apart.

‘‘It was an offer that we felt was competitive and very reasonable in a lot of ways,’’ Paxson said. ‘‘[When the] offer we made was rejected — and I want to make it clear [it was] absolutely Lu’s prerogative — when he didn’t take the deal and we realized how far apart we really are as far as coming to any type of agreement, we had to have some very difficult discussions.’’

That meant by acquiring the enigmatic Bynum for Deng and waiving him, the Bulls could shed $20 million from their salary cap and avoid a luxury-tax hit. Plus, the three draft picks offer hope of some sort of return in the future.

And if the Bulls lose some games and slip into the draft lottery in a year in which it might have some franchise-changing players in it, so be it. Paxson just didn’t want to hear words such as ‘‘rebuilding’’ and ‘‘tanking’’ thrown around.

‘‘Rebuilding is not a word you use when you have players like Joakim Noah on your team and you still have Derrick Rose, whom we fully expect to come back healthy,’’ Paxson said. ‘‘You don’t rebuild when you have a coach like Tom. We’re going in a different direction. As I said before, when Derrick got hurt and we knew he was out for the entire year, we had to look at things more broadly.’’

Shedding salary will enable the Bulls to free up money to woo 22-year-old power forward Nikola Mirotic from the Spanish league. Mirotic is making roughly $4.7 million this season with Real Madrid, which is rumored to be trying to keep him in Spain with a contract extension. The Bulls want him in red and black next season.

And the flexibility doesn’t end there for the Bulls. If they shed the final season of power forward Carlos Boozer’s contract through the amnesty clause and let guard Kirk Hinrich leave in free agency, that would free up enough money for them to add a big-name free agent.

But the last thing the players wanted to discuss was how business decisions outweighed the brotherhood they felt they had in the locker room.

‘‘It’s been very difficult for our guys,’’ Boozer said. ‘‘Unfortunately, we were put in this position. But we still have to play games, win, make the playoffs and strive for excellence. But it makes it a lot more difficult for us.’’


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