The recent trade of Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls to the Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. With Derrick Rose facing another year of rehab, the Bulls' immediate championship hopes have essentially disappeared. And with the majority of their cap space locked up for the forseeable future, shedding large contracts for future assets—trading Deng and amnestying Carlos Boozer—is the smartest course of action.
It's the other end of the trade that is more intriguing. The Cavs face pressure from owner Dan Gilbert to make the playoffs, despite a core roster of underdeveloped players who are multiple years away from reaching their potential. While the acquisition of Deng certainly shores up the small forward position in the short term, is he the long-term solution at the position?
If the two sides can come to an agreement that doesn't strangle Cleveland's cap space, he can certainly serve as a stopgap solution until Anthony Bennett reaches his potential—which, as it stands now, seems far off.
Offensively, Deng is an immediate upgrade. His repertoire has been stretched to its furthest extremes due to Chicago's lack of creators. But in Cleveland, the greater offensive talent will allow him thrive as a spot-up shooter and slasher, attacking closeouts and cutting off the ball.
Deng will be most useful to the Cavs on the defensive side of the ball, an area in which they've struggled since the departure of LeBron James. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Cavs are 25th in the league against isolations. Throughout his career, Deng has been a premier wing stopper.
Chicago's strong-side overload defense deterred paint penetration by sticking defenders in the isolator's vision, but it was still up to the on-ball defender to make the stop; help only came when the action moved to the rim. When Deng defended the league's elite scorers, it often didn't even get that far.
This stop against Miami's Michael Beasley is classic Deng. Good defenders stay in front of their man; great defenders dictate the direction of the ball-handler. Here, Beasley tries to attack Deng from the perimeter with a strong left hand. Deng reads the drive and immediately cuts him off.
The ensuing Beasley crossover is a counter, but it's not a part of his move. It's merely reactive as Deng beats him to the spot. It's also a move Deng can easily anticipate, as he quickly gathers his momentum and explodes to his left, cutting off Beasley once again.
This forces Beasley into an awkward floater, which rims out.
Under Mike Brown and his defensive-minded philosophy, Deng will be a welcome addition to a team that gives up way too much dribble penetration. But his work as rotator and high-IQ defender is what will really aid Cleveland immensely.
Much of great defense happens away from the ball. Denying a swing pass to disrupt an offensive set; fighting through screens to force a catch farther from the hoop. Bodying a pick-setter so he can't line up to knock off an on-ball defender.
Think of it like an NFL cornerback. The best corners don't intercept passes or bat balls away. Sure, they're able to do these things when necessary, but quarterbacks typically don't throw their way very often. By simply negating a player from getting the ball in the first place, he's hurting his own statistical output while immeasurably helping the team.
This next play is likely a pregame schematic decision made by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and his staff, but it's still representative of Deng's defensive discipline. As Greivis Vasquez drives to the hoop, his path takes him almost straight at Deng.
Yet Deng hardly moves. His man, DeMar DeRozan, is buried in the corner waiting for the drive-and-kick three-pointer. Though it might seem easy to follow the game plan, it's often difficult when an offensive player attacks the rim right into your help position.
The Bulls would rather Vasquez throw up a floater/mid-range jumper than give DeRozan any room to fire a three. Deng doesn't bite, and Vasquez follows the Bulls' scheme. The possession is a win for Chicago as Vasquez misses.
In Cleveland, Deng is already up to his old tricks. It's always easier to transition on that end of the floor due to the similarity of most defensive schemes. And in one-on-one situations, the concept is always identical: Stop your man from scoring.
Against the Sacramento Kings and Rudy Gay, Deng fights the fight before the catch. This is what makes him so effective as a defender—he forces Gay to attack from 18 feet away as opposed to 10.
He eventually sends Gay baseline, cutting off the middle, and into a difficult reverse. But when you watch the video, notice how Deng swim moves around Gay to deny an early entry pass into the post on the block. Gay must travel much farther away from the rim just to receive the ball.
Defense is an attitude more than a skill set. Most players can be effective defenders should they choose to apply themselves, but only a small subset take pride on the defensive end on every possession. Whether Deng can change the defensive attitude in Cleveland remains to be seen; so does his future as a Cavalier in the first place.
If he does sign a long-term deal, he could become a nice piece to surround Cleveland's young core led by Kyrie Irving. If not, he'll easily command big money on the open market as an unrestricted free agent. There are very few defenders with his motivation and skill set, and his style of player—defense, three-point shooting and attacking closeouts—is a hot commodity in today's NBA.
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