Words. Eric Bressman
There are no awards to honor his body of work, but perhaps that is precisely the point. We can dub him the MUP (Most Underrated Player), but it’s a title that’s impossible to assess objectively, and ultimately we’ll find ourselves in something of a Catch-22. What is certain is that without Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls, not only as a team but as a franchise, would not be where they are today.
Deng’s rookie season (2004-05) marked the turning point in the post-Jordan era, and the team has only missed the playoffs once since. He is the only remaining player from that roster, or from the ’05-’06 and ’06-’07 rosters, for that matter. He has seen personnel changes and roster gutting, tie grabbing and even some chest poking, and maintained steadily consistent production throughout.
But as Deng wraps up his most impressive regular season to date, it hardly registers with even the trained eye. Note his numbers over the past five years. Apart from an injury plagued 2008-09 campaign, his point totals are par for the course. His minutes are up (currently fourth in the league), and his shooting percentages have dipped slightly. But before you jump to analysis, note this: In the past four seasons, Deng attempted a total of 132 threes (he shot precisely seven in all of ’06-’07, the only season he didn’t miss a game); with nine games to play this season, he’s put up 301, converting at a rate of 34.2 percent. Coach Tom Thibodeau asked Deng to remake his game, and he has responded in kind. Triples comprised 6.1 percent of Deng’s field goal attempts over the course of his career; this season they constitute 29 percent.
Deng has had to become the team’s consistent floor stretcher with the two-spot as the one glaring weakness in the rotation. Kyle Korver was brought in to provide some of that depth, but with his eye-popping lateral quickness, he’s primarily readying himself for what is sure to be a stellar career in the rec center seniors league. Deng’s expanding out from an already efficient midrange game has kept defenses honest and opened up the floor for Derrick Rose to do so much of the romping and snarling that have defined his MVP campaign.
His PER is hovering around average (15.72) and rather low for his career, mostly because his minutes are up and his percentages are down, but the statistic doesn’t reflect the very reason his presence on the court is indispensable to the Bulls’ success. The oft-repeated mantra that has permeated the Chicago’ locker room and fueled their defensive renaissance is accountability, and no one has been made more accountable than Deng. He regularly sticks the opponent’s top scorer, and for those who haven’t been paying attention, the Bulls’ defense has improved quite a bit (allowing 91.1 ppg, down from 99.1 last year). Much of that has to do with rebounding and a steady inside presence, but Deng has taken the toughest assignments night in and night out, and used his length and athleticism to become the stopper upfront Thibodeau’s system demands.
And, of course, he’s done it all amidst an almost predictable cycle of trade rumors, resurfacing every deadline and offseason. Never the face of the franchise but always the backbone, his trophy case – lined with sportsmanship and humanitarian awards – is a testament to his character. Maybe he’s content with that and maybe he’s not, but if there’s anything more in his arsenal just awaiting word for deployment, Deng may soon be making room on those shelves for the hardware that renders all other recognition meaningless.
Who do you think is the most underrated in the NBA?
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