Luol Deng says nothing has changed.
What he means, we have to assume, is that the added money of a new contract has not altered his personality. Nor has it made him a better player.
But as Deng spoke before the Bulls' 88-80 exhibition loss to the Utah Jazz at the United Center on Saturday night, it was apparent that the strain of a protracted negotiation with the Bulls last season, combined with the team's struggles and his injuries, deeply affected the Bulls' spiritual leader.
The story line last season centered on Deng and Ben Gordon not signing, with Deng turning down a five-year, $57.5 million deal in the off-season before eventually signing a six-year, $71 million deal in July.
"To be honest, I'm just glad it's out of the way," said Deng, who scored six points on 2-of-7 shooting in 25 minutes as the Bulls shot an exhibition-season-low 33.8 percent from the field. "The way it came out, my family really didn't like it. It came out that I was hungry for more, and that really wasn't the issue.
"If people know where I came from, this [money] is a lot for me. It's not about that. I had a really tough time with people thinking I was greedy. Of course when you say a million dollars to somebody and that we're not taking it, that sounds like a lot. But that's where the business part comes in. You have agents, friends, people telling you from a business standpoint that's not smart. That's where things change."
And that's where the usually easygoing and pleasant Deng appeared to be sullen and withdrawn.
"It's funny," Deng said. "At the end of the day, we're all doing what we love to do, we all grew up playing basketball, so that's what you want to do," he said. "Last year, it was the injuries more than anything [that bothered me] because my first three years, I pretty much only had one injury. But last year I had to deal with my back and Achilles'. Playing with those two were really tough. That why it was such a long and a tough year."
While media and fans tried to dissect what would turn a 43-39 team that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals into a squad that limped through at 33-49 last season, Deng said he and his teammates struggled with outside perception.
"The toughest part about it was seeing the fans come into the UC and having the record we had," Deng said. "You work so hard, and then you come in and lose. You're seen as a loser and that you didn't care. A lot of us really care how we're viewed. I definitely care [about] how people view me and what people think about me, so I struggled with that a lot."
To undo that perception, the Bulls will have to pick up their play considerably from Saturday night, when the Jazz beat up the Bulls in the paint for the second night in a row (100 points combined). Among the positives: Tyrus Thomas' third double-double of the preseason with 15 points and 14 rebounds, and Joakim Noah's 10 rebounds.
Derrick Rose had 11 points but shot just 4 of 14 with two assists in 40 minutes. The Bulls had only 12 assists.
"We have new guys, a new system, a new staff," first-year Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We're playing a faster game than we're used to. We have to know what are good shots and what aren't. Shooting 34 percent with 12 assists and 18 turnovers, you're not going to beat many teams."
Layup: Larry Hughes returned to the Bulls' lineup after not dressing Friday because of a bruised right hand. Ben Gordon, who did play Friday after missing the previous three games with his jammed right big toe, did not dress. Holding out Gordon was "precautionary more than anything," Del Negro said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times