Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.
7. Is Luol Deng underappreciated or overrated?
Depending to which Bulls fan you talk to, Luol Deng is the team's weak link, despite his averages of 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season.
Entering his seventh professional season, the Sudanese native -- via London and New Jersey -- was regarded as a potentially elite small forward just a few years ago. However, injuries and the emergence of teammates Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have caused him to lose his status as arguably the team's best player. And with the offseason acquisition of fellow Duke product Carlos Boozer, Deng is now fourth in the pecking order when it comes to Chicago's marquee players.
None of that has anything to do with his actual game. Regardless of the general perception, having a player of Deng's caliber as part of a team's supporting cast is a luxury many NBA organizations would love to enjoy.
At 6-foot-9, he possesses excellent size for his position, creating mismatches with smaller wings on offense and also carving out a niche as a reliable finisher and shooter from the mid-range area, if not a dynamic, breakdown ballhandler. While Deng isn't necessarily a lockdown defender, he's more than adequate, as he gives a solid effort on that end of the floor. And although quicker small forwards can give him problems on the perimeter, he makes up for it by being one of the better rebounders for his position throughout the league.
So why do so many people take him for granted? Why do many Bulls trade fantasies usually include Deng? And why do some believe the team would be better off without him?
Much of it has to do with his contract. Deng is currently in the midst of a six-year contract -- which he signed in 2008 -- that increases his yearly salary each season. The Bulls still owe him over 51 million of the initial 71-million deal, making trading him -- if the franchise was so inclined -- a difficult prospect, especially with teams loathe to take on additional salary in anticipation of a new collective bargaining agreement next summer.
Then, there's the issue of Deng's durability. The 70 games he played last season represented the third-most regular-season contests of his career and while he played well, memories of the Bulls' inspiring 2008 playoff series with the Boston Celtics -- which didn't involve an injured Deng -- led to the widespread belief that the team would be just as competitive without its highest-paid player in the lineup.
Whether it's resentment over him supposedly being overpaid or questions about him being brittle, fans just don't seem to think the Bulls are getting enough bang for their buck from Deng. Since he gets what could be considered star money, it's reasonable to expect him to produce like a star, common logic would dictate.
The truth is, Deng is more of a secondary star. In fact, with Boozer's presence, he's now Chicago's third option on offense. But that could be a role in which he thrives, as opposing teams that must focus on Rose's penetration and Boozer's low-post presence -- and to lesser extents, an ever-improving Noah and the outside threat of new Bull Kyle Korver, who gives the team a dimension they haven't had since Ben Gordon's departure -- now have to play Deng honestly.
After starting out last season as the team's go-to guy, Deng settled into a comfort zone as Chicago's No. 2 option, as Rose gained confidence throughout the season. Still, Deng was able to carry the team for stretches and even dominate games on occasion, matching up favorably with the likes of fellow small forwards Paul Pierce and Danny Granger, and even holding his own against MVP LeBron James (once upon a time, Deng was ranked behind only James, as far as top high school prospects), all of whom are considered some of the league's best at the position.
Another thing to consider: Deng is only 25 years old. Has it really been that long since he was the toast of the town following the 2007 playoffs, after which many league observers believed he was a potentially elite player? No, Deng isn't and will likely never be a superstar or a player capable of leading a team to contention on his own. But even with his hefty contract, is there a better complementary piece with his talent and at his age who would be realistic for the Bulls to acquire?
Sure, if he could be exchanged for Denver Nuggets All-Star small forward Carmelo Anthony, that's an opportunity the Bulls would be crazy not to consider. Denver, however, isn't likely to trade Anthony before the season and sources say new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau -- a staunch advocate of defense, may be less eager about Anthony's indifference in that area, as opposed to Deng, who is at least solid -- wants to coach the team as currently composed, and both Rose and Noah also feel the present squad is more than suitable.
Furthermore, the Nuggets -- if they indeed acquiesce to Anthony's reported wishes and deal him to the Windy City in the coming weeks -- would likely request that not only second-year forwards Taj Gibson and James Johnson be included in a package, but Noah, as well, thus gutting the team.
For now, it looks like Chicago is stuck with Deng -- who, by the way, is now the longest-tenured Bull on the roster -- and that's not such a bad thing. A scorer who can reliably produce 15-20 points per game, contribute on the glass and defend at a relatively high level isn't easy to come by, and without the burden of being the main offensive focal point, what used to be expected performances from Deng will now seem like an added bonus.
On nights when Rose or Boozer struggle, it's not as if Deng isn't capable of pouring in 25 points or snatching 10 rebounds; it just won't be necessary all the time.
That doesn't sound like a player who needs to be shown the door.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.