EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng was a conflicted man on Wednesday night. He had turned down a reported $50 million earlier in the day, and now he sat inside the dank visiting locker room at the Meadowlands, preparing for a game and wanting some answers.
Chicago center Ben Wallace was all ears as well, likewise seeking an accurate reading on the Bryant talks.
All three had been mentioned as potential trade bait for the Los Angeles Lakers superstar. So on the opening night of the season, a steady ship they were not.
"No one is telling me much of anything. I don't know what is going on exactly," Deng said regarding the Bryant trade talks.
And the state of those talks is this:
Deng is very much in play in the conversations between Chicago and Los Angeles, ESPN.com has learned.
And it's mainly because of Bryant's wishes that Deng is still wearing a Chicago uniform.
A source with knowledge of the trade talks said Deng has been included in proposals swapped between the teams, but Bryant has continually threatened to veto almost any deal in which Deng would be included. Bryant wants to be sure that the team he joins has enough talent remaining to compete for the NBA title.
The source said talks between the teams had stagnated, though by no means were they dead. And while the difficulties involved in the deal -- making the salaries match, and trying to trade players onto 15-man rosters now that the preseason roster flexibility has elapsed -- continued to be formidable, the Bulls remained determined to pursue every avenue toward acquiring Bryant from the Lakers.
Magic Johnson, who owns a small percentage of the team, was critical of both the Lakers and Bryant during his guest spot on Tuesday's Lakers-Rockets telecast on TNT.
"Watching the players and looking at their body language, they are going to have to make a decision about Kobe in the next week or two," Johnson, quoted by The Los Angeles Times, said. "It's got to come to a head. You've either got to trade him or come out and say you're going to keep him. Even Kobe needs it. He missed nine free throws [Tuesday]. It's on his mind too."
Contrary to most reports, the Bulls remain ready and willing to deal Deng, the source said. But if they're going to include Deng in a deal, they will not part with more than one of the other three, said the source.
Even then, it is not clear that any trade involving Deng would be acceptable to Bryant, who is wielding the power of the NBA's only no-trade clause by threatening to veto certain deals.
"It's not just the Bulls and Lakers who have to be happy with this deal. Kobe does, too, and that's a major factor," the source said.
The Bulls, according to ESPN.com's source, are willing to offer an alternative package of Gordon, Noah and Thomas.
On Wednesday, Deng was wearing a forlorn look on his 22-year-old face as he pondered his situation. The midnight deadline was approaching for a contract extension and the financial security that goes with it. Deng was reportedly offered a five-year, $50 million extension by Chicago, but he said he decided not to sign when the Bulls did not increase their offer on Wednesday.
With no deal in the works, Deng faced the prospect of playing out the season and becoming a restricted free agent in a 2008 summer that appeared to offer few good options for him.
He had already lived through years of trade rumors, first linked to a possible Kevin Garnett deal and then to a Pau Gasol trade, the common denominator in both cases being the Bulls' reluctance to give him up. Now, strange as it may seem, the 6-9 small forward was considered the main pawn in the most publicized trade speculation the NBA has seen.
Deng is widely regarded as one of the league's best up-and-coming players, a young man from Sudan by way of England and Duke University. His impeccable character is matched only by the touch on his mid-range jumper, his most effective offensive weapon. Last season, his third in the NBA, he shot 52 percent from the field and averaged 18.8 points. Wednesday night, in the midst of the drama swirling around him, he scored 22 points in the Bulls' 112-103 overtime loss to New Jersey.
He is one of the NBA's most nondescript young stars, a do-it-all type appreciated in Chicago but not very well known beyond the borders of the Bulls' universe. And though his accomplishments are far short of Bryant's, he is the primary obstacle in the way of a deal between the Lakers and the Bulls.
"I'm definitely surprised we didn't come to terms. I thought we would come to terms, I really did. The last couple weeks we started talking more seriously," Deng said.
He was asked what the situation said about the Bulls' commitment to him.
"I understand the question, I just don't really know how to answer it," he said.
And with that, Deng started pressing to have some information passed his way.
And after being told of Bryant's veto power and how he was wielding it, Deng was asked if he knows Bryant personally?
And was Deng friendly enough with Kobe to give him a casual call or send him a text message?
"Yes," Deng said. "I guess it's time for me to pull out his phone number."
It probably is, because to a large degree, Bryant is driving the bus here, exercising his power behind the scenes in the hopes that the Lakers will cave in and accept a substandard offer -- one that would allow Deng to remain in Chicago. Thus far, Los Angeles hasn't been willing to do so. And chances are, the Lakers are going to remain steadfast in their stance for as long as possible.
The Bulls can afford to sit back and wait for the Lakers to cave, knowing that when a team trades a superstar, it rarely gets equal value in return. (See the Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter trades, for example.)
Of course, the Bulls would like to see Bryant win the test of wills, because it would end with him in Chicago playing right alongside Deng. For now, though, Deng remains a dealbreaker. Not for the Bulls, but for Kobe.
And until his stance changes -- or the Lakers blink -- Bryant is likely to remain an unhappy Laker.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.