Is something wrong with Luol Deng? It's a question that's hard to ignore when pouring over the numbers of the Bulls' beloved small forward the last two seasons. Even as he's earned the only All-Star selections of his career, Deng's statistics show a troubling dip in production just as the Bulls face the critical decision of whether to give him a lucrative new contract after the upcoming season.
Perhaps much of what Deng contributes verges on the unquantifiable. He's been a staple in Chicago since being selected No. 7 overall in 2004, but it wasn't until the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau three seasons ago that Deng really felt entrenched. Under Thibodeau, Deng has been the Bulls' unfatigued workhorse. He's Forest Gump running from coast-to-coast without the slightest inclination that doing something similar would kill lesser men. He was the captain of the original Bench Mob; he was tasked with guarding the opposition's best wing in crunch-time of playoff games while still being relied upon offensively.
Deng just keeps going and going, leading the NBA in minutes two of the last three years. The question is whether an unparalleled workload has taken a toll on his game.
Deng's shooting percentages waned for the second straight season a year ago, something that may be able to be traced back to when he tore the ligaments in his left wrist on January 21, 2012. The problem is that Deng has insisted the wrist injury is no big deal, choosing to forgo surgery each of the last two offseasons. It's a convenient excuse for his diminished shooting, but at a certain point the excuse has to fall by the wayside if Deng refuses to correct it.
Deng's 50.8 true shooting percentage was seventh on the Bulls last season among qualified players. The idea that Deng is the king of the long-two pointer regained traction, as only 84 of the 226 shots Deng attempted from 20-24 feet were threes. And for a player who's regarded as a reliable shooter from midrange, Deng simply wasn't great last season:
|Shot distance||FG made||FG attempted||FG%|
Deng's shooting struggles have been evident for a while, but other numbers are more peculiar. Like, would you have guessed the Bulls were basically identical offensively without Deng and worse defensively with him*? It's a bit of a small sample because Deng is always on the court, but there's enough minutes taken into account to make you think. Despite having good size, Deng was also only fifth on the team in total rebounding percentage, though that might be because he usually plays with Joakim Noah and either Taj or Boozer, all of whom are strong rebounders. (*Deng o-rating on: 100.5 Deng o-rating off: 100.2 Deng d-rating on: 100.7 Deng d-rating off: 99.3)
And maybe that's a problem. After failing to sign a competent backup center for the second straight offseason, the goal of keeping Joakim Noah healthy for the playoffs became a scary proposition once again. Noah was playing over 40 minutes per night through Christmas of last year because Thibodeau didn't trust Nazr Mohammed, and it might have played a role in the foot injuries the center battled throughout the end of the season.
If making sure Noah is fresh for the postseason is the No. 1 objective of the regular season, it might be time to get creative with in-house options. That could mean experimenting with Deng as a small-ball power forward matched with Taj Gibson on the second unit. It's something that could rejuvenate Deng while getting Noah some extra rest, which is a win-win scenario all-around.
Why would Deng work at the four? For one, he has ideal size for the job. At 6'9, 220 lbs. with a 7-foot wingspan, Deng is just as big or bigger than the other small forwards who have been asked to handle the four, like Golden State's Harrison Barnes and Orlando's Tobias Harris. It would stretch out defenses who have to respect Deng's three-point shot, while still putting Deng im a position to often get closer to the basket where he does fine work (58 percent at the rim last year).
The Bulls posted up Deng occasionally throughout last season, and it's something they should go to more this year. Here's a short video compilation of the work Deng was able to do in the post:
Deng does have some nifty moves when he gets down low, particularly when matched against players he has a slight size advantage against. The results were encouraging last season: Deng had 72 post-ups and converted 28 of them for a 38.9 percent success rate. That ranked him No. 45 in the NBA. It could be the basis for something to build on this upcoming season.
Of course, suggesting Luol Deng takes even more of a pounding by moving inside comes with it's own set of problems, but it can be hedged to a certain extent. Really, Gibson takes on a bigger workload than anyone, protecting the rim and playing the five on the second unit when paired with Boozer or Deng while also having to stay fresh for crunch-time when the Bulls like to close with him and Noah. Gibson only averaged 20.4 and 22.4 minutes per game the last two seasons, respectively, and since he'll be around for a while making a nice salary, the Bulls might as well put him to work,
Deng at the four could also open up an opportunity for Tony Snell to get some minutes, even if anyone paying attention correctly assumes Thibodeau will rarely go to the rookie. If Hinrich-Snell-Dunleavy-Deng-Gibson were to get on the floor together, the Bulls would have four strong defenders and four potential three-point threats, pending Snell's development. Hinrich, Dunleavy and Deng on the court would also give the Bulls enough quality passers to result in the ample ball movement required for going small.
The hope is that Deng and Noah can both avoid being grounded into a fine powder before the playoffs start, but it also seems to foolish to anticipate Thibodeau going away from using Deng some on the second unit like he has the last three years. If that continues to be the philosophy, the Bulls might as well give teams a different look while playing to their own strengths. Moving Deng to power forward for stretches is one way to do it.