Breaking Down Why Luol Deng Is Critical to Chicago Bulls Title Ceiling

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2013

Luol Deng is still important. The Chicago Bulls have undergone a lot of changes and are preparing for Derrick Rose's return, but Deng is still important.

Not everyone understands that. With Rose coming back, the emergence of Jimmy Butler and the addition of the sharp-shooting Mike Dunleavy, fans are seeing made threes and championships in their sleep. Some may even see Deng being shown the door.

The free-agent-to-be in 2014 was previously discussing a contract extension with the Bulls, but according to CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam, talks have stalled.

By no means does this mean Deng is on his way out. Talks could resume, or, more likely, the Bulls could allow Deng to set his own market next summer. Or they could even use his expiring deal as trade bait.

Butler has made him expendable after all, hasn't he? No sense in keeping him now or later. He's not a part of the future.

Before issuing Deng's pink slip, it's important to understand that nothing could be further from the truth.


Defensive Anchor

Even with Rose, the Bulls are a defense-first team.

Their top priority under Tom Thibodeau has always been that side of the ball. Rose makes the offense watchable, but defense is the heart of their attack. And Deng is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.

Opposing small forwards notched an 11.2 PER against him last season according to, well below the league average of 15. By comparison, LeBron James—who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting—held small forwards to a 12.7.

Plenty of more similarities existed between the two as well. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), opponents shot 39.5 percent against Deng compared to 37.4 when facing LeBron. Deng allowed 0.85 points per defensive possession while LeBron relinquished 0.84. Chicago itself let up 0.87 points per possession, the eighth-best mark in the NBA. And Deng was better.

The list goes on and on and on.

For more context, take a look at how either player fared in certain defensive situations:

LeBron has Deng beat in pick-and-roll defense by a mile, but Chicago's wingman holds strong just about everywhere else. The Bulls need that—that established perimeter defender who has shown he can rival the best.

Full disclosure: The Bulls actually allowed fewer points with Deng off the floor last year; two points per 100 possessions to be exact. I'd attribute that aberration to their anemic offense more than anything. Deng averaged over 38 minutes per game on a middling Eastern Conference team. With the Bulls' best scorer riding pine, their offense was more vulnerable than their defense was strong.

The individual numbers say Deng remains a strong defender, and for a team still unsure of what they have on offense, there's no reason to doubt the value of a defensive linchpin.


Now About that Offense...

Chicago tailored its not-so-busy offseason with the offense in mind.

Drafting Tony Snell and signing Dunleavy gave the Bulls a pair of floor-spacing wings who should bolster their three-point shooting considerably. The key word there being "should."

Deng isn't much of a three-point shooter—33.4 percent for his career—but he is a scorer. Even with Rose coming back, the Bulls need a scorer. Their 93.2 points per game ranked 29th in the NBA last season.

Speaking of which, Deng was the one who spearheaded that attack while Rose was out. His 16.5 points led the Bulls during the regular season. He's also been in the top three of team scoring in each of the last four years. The only other player who can say that is Rose.

For all their newfangled weapons, the Bulls aren't teeming with two-way players either. Joakim Noah is a lockdown defender but rocky scorer. Carlos Boozer can score and rebound but is a nightmare on defense. Arguments are always made for Taj Gibson to get more burn, but I've yet to see the value of him as anything other than an average help defender.

Butler projects to be that double-ended talent, and I'll take Rose against most point guards. But that doesn't make Deng any less important.

Chicago's offense isn't in a position to cast aside its second-best scorer. That same scorer who has played four seasons with Rose.

When they were on the floor together in 2011-12, the Bulls outscored their opponents by an average of 12.6 points per 100 possessions, making them the third-most potent two-man combination on the roster. Of the Bulls' top-20 dyads in 2012-13, not one of them notched a plus-12.6 per 100 possessions. Butler and Noah's plus-8.5 was the best on the team.

The Bulls need someone who has yielded exceptional results on offense, who has shown they can lead the team in scoring and be successful alongside Rose.

Someone like Deng.


Is Jimmy Butler Ready?

My money is on Butler. Doesn't matter what the question is; the answer is yes.

He's a future star in the league. That much became clear during the postseason. Is he ready to "replace" Deng as second-in-command? I have my doubts.

If you think about it, Butler's really only entering his second season. Coach Thibs plays rookies about as often as James Harden shaves, so Butler logged just 359 total minutes during his inaugural campaign.

Amongst all the NBA's rookies, that ranked 41st. He played fewer minutes than fellow newbies Jeremy Pargo and Lance Thomas, in addition to others who don't project as stars. 

Cracking the rotation of a contender can be difficult, but hell, Greg Stiemsma of the Boston Celtics saw more time on the floor than Butler did (766 minutes). And the only thing Doc Rivers dislikes more than people without raspy voices is playing rookies out of the gate.

None of that impacts Butler's potential per se, but he's not accustomed to bearing the type of cross Deng does—that of second best on the team.

Look at how the their per-36 minute averages matched up last season:

Nothing sticks out to where you should think Deng is expendable. Say Butler improves and develops into a more dangerous shooter (38.1 percent from deep), what then? Well, he's still young and inexperienced—especially alongside Rose.

Butler has only logged 76 minutes alongside Rose to date. That's it. Deng saw nearly 1,000 with Rose that same season, and that was with the point man missing 27 games, Deng himself missing 12 and came during a lockout-shortened crusade. That familiarity means something.

Any chemistry Butler and Rose could have developed last season was ripped away from them in 2012, when the latter tore his ACL. Next year will be about turning them into a feared tandem. Right now, they're nothing more than a hypothetical success.


Because, Duh

Picture a world in which Rose returns to a lineup that already includes Deng, Butler and Noah, and the Bulls look at it as an opportunity to win a championship, not part ways with a two-time All-Star. Crazy, I know, but it makes sense.

Throw the advanced analytics out the window for a minute. Chicago has an incredible roster assembled. There's no reason to break it up if it works.

In a league dominated by superteams—and the Memphis Grizzlies—the Bulls could have one. Deng is a star. One of the more underappreciated ones, but he's still a star. Noah, fresh off his first All-Star appearance is a star. Butler is a (future) star as well, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. That guy Rose might be a star too, I'm not really sure.

Give this team a chance before pointing Deng toward the exit either this season or next. Recognize that this team doesn't stand to gain anything by letting him go in one year's time unless they also plan on amnestying (or trading) Boozer.

Understand that Deng is still important to the Bulls if they're serious about winning the title that's eluded them the last 15 years.



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