Twenty-two thousand, eight hundred and eighty-two minutes. For nearly ten years Luol Deng filled the small forward position for the Chicago Bulls, blossoming into a premier two-way All-Star along the way. Derrick Rose may be the clear face of the franchise, but Deng was the heart and soul. Before Rose it was Deng, who back when Scott Skiles was roaming the sidelines, brought the Bulls back to the Promised Land of the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. It was Deng who developed into the secondary scoring threat that Carlos Boozer failed to become. It was Deng who kept the Bulls afloat while Rose rehabbed his torn ACL (while Deng suffered and battled through numerous injuries himself, including nearly dying from a mistreated spinal tap). It was Deng who played a seemingly endless amount of minutes (37 or more minutes per game in each season since 2009-2010; twice leading the league in minutes per game, both in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013), becoming Tom Thibodeau’s most reliable AND favorite player. Now, at age 28 and after 22,882 minutes, it is Deng who finds himself playing against the Chicago Bulls.
Last night, Luol Deng and the Cavaliers lost a hotly contested matchup to the Chicago Bulls, 98-87, due in part to Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin going off for a combined 53 points. For his part, Deng had 11 points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field.
“I’ve never been through something like that before,” Deng said. “It was strange… but it’s the Cavs versus the Bulls, it’s not about me.”
Deng said he didn’t feel like he was forcing things.
“I missed shots, I’m not happy with my performance, but they are a good defensive team,” he said. “In terms of me, I could have played better.
“I think we have guys that are going to have a great career. A lot of times out there, there is a lot of individual effort, we have to find a way to do it together.”
It feels cliché to call him the Bulls former glue guy, but somehow that’s the name that was most often thrown around. Does Deng do the little things — run hard, hustle for loose balls, play gritty defense, and provide a mature veteran voice in the locker room? Absolutely. But he is much more than a role player; he is a capable second or third scoring option, a valuable wing defender, and most importantly a professional.
In his nine and a half years in Chicago, Deng never once finished first on the team in total points, yet he finished his Bulls career fourth on their all-time scoring list. Take a look at the record books and you’ll see his name pop up all over the place: he occupies spots in the top ten in games played (fifth), minutes played (fourth), total rebounds (eighth), blocks (tenth), and steals (fifth). For his career, Deng averages 16.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, and 1.0 SPG in 35.9 MPG. Those numbers don’t scream All-Star, but they do put him in the upper echelon group of small forwards. Take his numbers from this season (18.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.4 APG): those numbers place him sixth, eighth, and seventh in their respected categories. The only other small forwards with averages that high in each category? Paul George, Kevin Durant and…. LeBron James.
Neither the fastest nor the strongest forward in the league, Deng’s game has never been focused on athleticism, nor is he a lights-out shooter. No, according to coaches, scouts and players alike, what Deng does better than any other player is moving without the ball. He knows where to be at the exact moment he needs to be there. He makes the right decision when the ball is in his hands; he worries about wins, not his statistics. It’s that stability that has made Deng one of the league’s most valuable assets.
Both coaches for and against have praised his incredible professionalism and work ethic. Joe Mantegna, Deng’s high school coach once said Deng’s work ethic is what sets him a part from other players, “…But he so far surpasses most of these guys in work ethic. He’ll outwork everyone. His work ethic is incredible.”
With Derrick Rose out yet another year with yet another knee injury, the title-chasing Bulls front office made the executive decision to rebuild on the fly, which meant selling Deng away for what amounts to three future draft picks (one of which has a chance to be a first rounder, if the Kings can avoid a bottom 12 finish anytime before 2017). With a Carlos Boozer amnesty possibly looming this offseason (as well as Charlotte’s first-round pick this season, top-10 protected), the Bulls could have a lot of new faces next year. In the meantime, they have to deal with the aftermath of trading away their veteran leader. So far, under the former Coach of the Year Thibodeau, the Bulls are playing surprisingly well, playing together and competing hard, (much to the credit of Joakim Noah and the transformed D.J. Augustin, who are averaging 15.4 PPG, 15.4 RPG, and 5.0 APG and 16.3 PPG and 6.1 APG respectively since Deng’s departure) going 5-3 and scoring 8.6 more points per game. But did you really expect anything less from such a well-coached, veteran-led team? They probably will make the playoffs in the awful Eastern Conference (currently fifth). In the long term, trading Deng allowed them to recoup some future assets.
While the Cavaliers have gone only 3-4 since the trade, Deng fills a king-sized crater of a need at small forward, one that has been filled by the likes of Luke Walton, Alonzo Gee, C.J. Miles and Earl Clark since the departure of LeBron James. But Deng’s value for the Cavs at small forward may be dwarfed by his impact off the court.