Luol Deng is used to less-than-ideal situations.
One of nine children, Deng's family had to flee to Egypt from their home country of Sudan due to Civil War. His family relocated again when he was 10 to London, after they were granted political asylum. This past spring, Deng was hospitalized with a spinal tap issue that saw him lose 15 pounds, endure constant headaches and nearly cost him his life.
Given all of this, winning some basketball games in Cleveland shouldn't be a big deal.
Since the trade was announced that brought Deng to the Cavaliers from the Chicago Bulls, the team has gone 4-2, a nice improvement after an 11-23 start.
Deng has been huge for the Cavs, providing leadership and a calming influence over what has been a dysfunctional locker room this year.
His 18.4 points are second only to Kyrie Irving's 21.5 per game. This is especially impressive considering Deng doesn't need the ball in his hands to make plays, and thrives on cuts to the basket and pick-and-pop play.
With Deng, the Cavs have seemingly become a different team. The offense is clicking, players seem to be having more fun and Cleveland now gets to begin a five-game homestand.
The question is, how far can this new team go now that Deng's on board?
The Big Deng Theory
Watching Deng at small forward makes one realize just how bad Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee were hurting the Cavaliers offense.
Deng can essentially do anything you ask him to. He's not going to demand the ball in isolation, but instead fits in well with shooters, play-makers or anyone else the coaches put on the floor. Deng can knock down the mid-range jumper, is excellent at cuts to the hoop and is shooting 50 percent on his three-pointers since coming to Cleveland.
In 35 games before Deng, the Cavs were averaging just 95.5 points, 24th in the NBA. In the five games he's played, Cleveland is putting up 105.2 points, good for eighth in the league in that span.
Turning their small forward position from a weakness into a strength has made all the difference in their offense. Deng can handle the ball and does a great job setting himself and teammates up, something Clark and Gee are unable to do.
Better ball movement with Deng has lead to more scoring, as a result of taking smarter, more open shots. The Cavs were 29th in the league field goal percentage (42.2) pre-Deng, with Kyrie Irving forcing the hero-ball routine far too often.
With Deng, Cleveland is up to 46.3 percent, good for 13th during that span. What was once a pull-your-hair-out offense in the beginning of the year has now become quite enjoyable to watch.
Mike Brown will continue to preach defense to this group, but it's nice to know that the Cavs now have a playoff-caliber offense.
So, this is a playoff team, right?
Well, not quite, but it's looking promising.
As of January 19th, the Cavs sit just two games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. This is somewhat of a miracle, considering Cleveland is still 10 games under .500 at 15-25.
This is the state of the NBA right now, where the 10th best team in the Western Conference would be the No. 3 seed in the East.
So what will it take to make the playoffs this year? In the East, not much.
If we take Brooklyn's winning percentage of 42.1 and stretch it over 82 games, this comes out to a record of 35-47. Cleveland, at 15-25, would need to go 20-22 the rest of the way to hit this mark. Given that they're 4-2 since the Deng trade, this does seem quite possible.
With Deng and a roster of Irving, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and others, 35-47 would actually be somewhat of a disappointment.
The truth is, making the playoffs would be nice, but getting the sixth seed or higher would be huge.
After the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, there is a monumental dropoff in talent. Finishing seventh or eighth in the East means a first-round matchup with one of the two heavyweights who are a combined 43 games over .500. Getting the sixth seed right now would mean a showdown with the Toronto Raptors, who are exactly one game over .500 at 20-19.
This is kind of a big deal.
The Cavs need to be shooting for the sixth seed or higher, but can they get it?
Projected finish with Deng
It's way too early, and we've just seen a small sample size, but suppose the Cavaliers keep up their winning pace of three wins for every two losses like they've accumulated in Deng's first five games (he didn't play the first one immediately after being traded).
What would that mean for Cleveland heading down the stretch?
Three wins in every five games would put them at a winning percentage of 60 percent. Right now, only eight teams in the NBA are winning at a higher rate. This may be a lot to ask for a team 10 games below .500, but that was also before they had a small forward putting in over 18 points a game.
With 42 games to go, winning 60 percent of their remaining games would put the Cavs at 25-17 down the stretch. It seems like a daunting task, but Cleveland does have the talent to do it.
A 25-17 record over the remaining 42 games would see the Cavaliers at 40-42 for the year. This comes to a winning mark of 49 percent. Right now, that number would put them around the 5th seed in the East. This would mean a first-round matchup with the fourth seed, and getting to avoid teams like Indiana and Miami early on.
Now again, this is a very small sample size to draw from, and there's a lot of basketball left to be played.
In any other year, the Cavs' chance of a high playoff seed would already be dead and buried. Turning a 15-25 record into even an eighth seed would be considered a great success.
With Deng, however, hope has once returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The optimism that initially surrounded the team has been resurrected, and just in time, too.
Making the playoffs is nice, but Deng can take them even further than that.
The Cavs still have a realistic shot at a top-six seed in the East, and even a possible first-round victory this postseason.
After all he's been through already, getting the Cavs into the playoffs should be easy for Deng, right?
All stats via NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.
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