Right now the best trade chip who may or may not be on the market is Luol Deng. If you’re a GM of a contending team, and not at least inquiring about Deng, you’re probably not doing your job.
The Chicago Bulls are “determined not to trade Deng,” according ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, but at the same time, the Bulls are apparently getting many calls inquiring as to his availability. The right offer could change their minds. There’s a good reason they’re picking up the phone a lot.
In fact, there are three good reasons teams should be picking up the phone: his production, his leadership and his person.
There is only a small handful of teams where Deng would not be an upgrade at the 3. Based on efficiency, per hoopsstats.com, he’s the fifth-best small forward in the NBA, behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
If you’re looking at defense, in my defensive rankings of small forwards, Deng was sixth-best in the league last season. He’s also a balanced defender, able to guard elite players on the ball, and spot and contribute help the defense whenever needed.
There are three small forwards who are better than Deng on both ends of the court, and they’re the top-three players on the MVP ladder at NBA.com. Outside of those three, you can make a solid argument that Deng is the best two-way player at his position in the NBA.
His production has been understated because he has typically been the second or third option on the team in his prime years. However, since Derrick Rose’s latest injury, the offense has run through Deng, and his numbers have been pretty compelling over that span. In fact, his numbers compare favorably with James and George.
That’s not to say he’s on the same level as the other two, but it shows he can play on their level at times. He’s usually not asked to have the offense go through him, but when it does, he’s able to produce at a higher level than his career numbers suggest.
He has his deficiencies, foremost among them ball-handling, but if a team has a proven shot-creator, Deng can have a powerful impact on every aspect of the game.
He’s capable of being a far more productive player than people realize, but because of his willingness to take on a lesser role, spending his energy in other aspects of the game, his production has traditionally suffered.
Numbers only scratch the surface of what makes Deng valuable. He is the rarest form of leader in the NBA: the invisible kind.
General George S. Patton once said, “Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.” He was talking about the logistics of warfare, and many wars have been won or lost, not on strategy, but on the management of logistics.
It doesn’t matter how well-trained your forces are if your supply trains aren’t working and the soldiers starve to death or don’t have the right medical supplies. Logistics are the kinds of things you don’t notice unless they’re missing. There’s no glamor in these little things, but they are huge little things.
Generals who handle logistics are referred to as “logisticians," and there are no famous logisticians. That goes with the job.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau refers to Deng as the team’s “glue” guy, meaning he does all the little things that help all the other pieces stick together. In other words, Deng is one of the best logisticians in the NBA toady.
He handles all the little things no one notices because he does them.
He guards the best perimeter player. When there’s a player who misses an assignment on defense, it’s Deng who is there to fill it in. He runs the second team. He sets screens. He runs through them to establish shots for others. He creates offense by playing off the ball. Dozens of little things that go unnoticed go unnoticed because he does them.
It’s little wonder that it is NBA coaches, who see the need for such things, who have put Deng in the All-Star Game twice.
Derrick Rose got the glory of the game-winner against the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas day, 2011, but he wouldn't have had the shot to take were it not for Deng.
There’s a long list of ways he impacts the game which isn't registered statistically, but there is a number which reflects the impact of his doing them.
In the era of Tom Thibodeau, beginning in 2011, the Bulls are 104-69 when Deng plays compared to 12-12 when he doesn’t. That’s a difference between a 60 percent winning percentage and a 50 percent winning percentage. When those little things aren’t there it impacts winning and losing.
To have a player capable of putting up big numbers, but at the same time lead by taking care of the little things, is a rare find in the NBA. He’s not the only player who does that, but there are only a few, and Deng is one of the best.
Any team that is going to contend for a title is going to go through huge mood swings, and Deng is the type of leader every playoff team needs.
When you consider the kaleidoscope of personalities on the Bulls, with players as disparate as Joakim Noah (brash), Derrick Rose (sullen) and Carlos Boozer (moody), it’s amazing that the team manages to stay together sometimes. Deng has a lot to do with that.
He has the type of leadership you don’t just see in games.
He isn’t the outspoken, yell-in-your-face kind of leader. He’s the type that quietly absorbs controversy. He’s able to lead without giving the perception of challenging the superstar on the team. He’s the type of person who hears protests and dissolves them before they fester into discontent.
It’s on the court, too.
Whatever the team is going through, Deng is steady. It’s hard to quantify this, and admittedly I’m going off my memory here, but it seems that many of the Bulls comebacks and late charges are initiated by something Deng did back when the game was getting out of hand. A steal. A three. A defensive stop. There’s something Deng does which sparks the team.
Noah might be the sulfur on the match, but Deng is the surface it strikes against.
Deng never plays the scoreboard. Whether the Bulls are up 20, down 20 or the score is tied, Deng gives the same constant effort, day in and day out. That has a stabilizing factor on the team, and it’s felt in and out of the locker room.
Deng is a persistent fighter, and that kind of fight is a valuable contribution to any team.
There’s something worked into Deng’s character that makes him incapable of quitting. It is more than a thing he does; it’s who he is as a person. That is the type of person any team in the league can benefit from having on their roster.
When you look at the complete package, there is no one in the league right now who could feasibly help a team through trade as much as Deng.
There are some obstacles. He’ll need to get healthy. He’s in the last year of his contract, which isn’t huge ($14.275 million) but isn’t small either. He’d probably need to be willing to extend with his new team.
But still, there is no other player who can help as much as Deng on both ends of the court and in the locker room. Because of the tangible things he brings, and the intangibles, any GM in need of a wing should be picking up the phone and trying to pry him away from the Bulls.