Dysfunction doesn't suit Luol Deng.
For the better part of 10 years, he played for a Chicago Bulls franchise that, while not always good, prided themselves upon discipline, resilience and direction. Now he finds himself a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a franchise that has represented the exact opposite this side of LeBron James' decision.
Consistency and structure were the foundation of Chicago's and Deng's recent success. Even in Derrick Rose's absence, the Bulls were a force to be reckoned with. They were a team to be feared.
Ahead of a critical playoff push, Deng arrived in Cleveland to high expectations. He would help even out a jagged, borderline broken roster, providing the Cavs with a veteran presence and cheaper alternative to James himself in free agency.
But Deng's tenure in Cleveland, through no fault of his own, has been just short of disastrous, leaving him with a decision of his own to make this summer.
Does he stay in Cleveland and hope to build something alongside Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, trusting that the Cavs, who haven't made the playoffs since 2010, are going to get it right this time? Or does he flee Cleveland and its reputation for theatrics and disappointment the first chance he gets?
Looking at the first impression Cleveland has left upon Deng, it appears his decision has already been made for him.
The Trade Deadline
Mixed messages were sent by Cleveland during the apex of NBA trade season.
On one side of the fence, you had the Cavs mortgaging more future assets on Spencer Hawes, a floor-spacing big man on an expiring contract, suggesting they were prepared to milk every last bit of potential from this season's ceiling.
On the other side of the fence, the Cavs only traded for Deng two months ago but were aggressively shopping him, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
Count on the Cavs to change their minds.
Then count on them to second-guess their second-guessing, per Windhorst:
Cleveland isn't determined to trade Deng, but with his impending free agency a concern, acting general manager David Griffin is testing the market for the veteran forward.
Getting value for Deng may be a challenge because his contract expires in June. He cannot be packaged with another Cavs player in a deal due to trade rules, though trades can be structured to get around this issue if teams are motivated enough.
Fear of losing Deng is legitimate and would have been completely understandable if this were the beginning of January. But it's not. The Cavs headed into the Feb. 20 trade deadline evaluating prospects that should have been evaluated long ago.
Potentially losing Deng has always been an option. It didn't just materialize overnight. If the Cavs weren't prepared to roll the dice, they shouldn't have traded for him.
Most of the blame can be attributed to the now-departed Chris Grant, but ultimate culpability falls on the current regime, who eventually decided against moving Deng because they couldn't land a first-round draft pick.
What player wants to willingly associate himself to an organization plagued by this kind of indecision and seeming lack of preparation?
Trade deadline indecision isn't the only sliver of drama Deng has been subjected to since arriving in Cleveland.
At the beginning of February, the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence alleged that Deng was appalled by day-to-day operations in Cleveland:
As Deng recently told one close friend, 'the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.'
Deng was brought in to help clean it up when he arrived in a deal for Andrew Bynum on Jan. 7. But since then, he’s seen players get thrown out of practice, take off their uniform tops at halftime and threaten not to play, mouth off to Brown and generally act like spoiled brats. Entering Saturday’s game at Houston, the Cavs had lost seven of their last 11 games since the Deng trade.
"I’ve never been in a situation where I start talking and turn my back on what’s in front of me. It’s not me, it’s not who I am," Deng said. "I’m really upset that’s written about me and I just hope guys within the team understand that."
Humble and cordial as ever, Deng isn't one to create waves. Even if he was displeased with Cleveland, he's not about to sound off on the disfigured culture. That's not his style.
But it's not ridiculous to believe he's uncomfortable and unhappy, and lost.
Changing locales for the first time of his career had to hit him hard. Trades are a brutal part of the business that didn't (really) impact Deng personally until this season. The realization that he was headed from a battle-tested organization in Chicago to a young and underachieving mess in Cleveland had to hit him hard.
Emotional shock aside, though, the Cavs haven't exactly rolled out the cleanest welcoming mat.
Since Deng's arrival, ESPN's Chad Ford indicated Irving was telling people he wanted out of Cleveland, and the drama attached to Waiters reached an all-time high. That baggage isn't going away anytime soon.
Waiters isn't suddenly a mature star, and Irving's future with the organization will be a hot-button issue leading into this summer and likely next season, and maybe beyond. This type of uncertainty doesn't suit Deng, who's not a kid anymore.
Pushing 29, it's not Deng's place to rescue a rebuilding team. Winning is all that matters for a veteran of his stature, and winning isn't something the Cavs have done.
Despite rattling off six victories in a row, the Cavs are still three games back of a playoff spot. They also rank 24th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. As Grantland's Zach Lowe writes, their recent success doesn't actually say much:
Small sample sizes are a dangerous thing, even in the hands of folks who should know better. It’s nice the Cavs are on a five-game winning streak, and they appear to have made some positive and substantive changes in that stretch. But the streak includes just one win over a team above .500, and that team, Memphis, was missing its two-way copilot in Mike Conley. The Cavs needed overtime to beat that Grizz team in Cleveland, and they barely staved off the Wizards in Washington in their previous win — the first of the streak. (That was a nice win, though. Several Cleveland players were battling an illness that spread through the team.)
Beyond that, we’re talking about wins over the dregs — a Sacramento team that is miserable on the road, the bumbling Pistons (points for a road back-to-back win, though), and a Philly team that has transitioned from not trying on an organizational level to actually not trying on the court.
Could the Cavs have reached a turning point? Absolutely, but that promises nothing.
Cleveland could play better basketball the rest of this season and still miss the playoffs, stumbling into the lottery for the fourth straight season, still searching for answers in the post-LeBron era.
The Cavs could also snag a playoff spot, earning that seventh or eighth slot in the Eastern Conference, both of which are still up for grabs. But that earns them a first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, neither of which are opponents Cleveland is stealing more than one game from.
And if you're Deng, you're taking in every bit of what happens. Playoffs or lottery, it doesn't matter. He'll still be surrounded by mediocrity at best, staring down a future in Cleveland offering him nothing save for hopes that have proved empty in the past.
How do you sign on for that? Especially when you're going to be one of the premier free agents available?
After LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, this summer's free-agency pool thins out considerably. Deng could wind up being the most sought-after target out of sheer convenience and lack of other options. Windhorst already says the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to make a run at him, and that's just the beginning.
More teams will want Deng. More winners will want Deng. All the Cavs have going for them is the inside track. They can offer him more years and money than anyone, and may have to do just that if he's to even consider staying.
In the end, though, no matter how much the Cavs are offering—even if it's much more than any other team—Deng's decision should still be an easy one.
Nothing about his time in Cleveland, not even this recent winning streak, should leave him confident enough to commit beyond this season. Over the last four years, these Cavs have been the poster boys for infighting and flawed designs, enacting backup plan after backup plan, never once proving they're ready for life after James.
And while things may be on the verge of improving, Deng can find greener grass and more stable footing elsewhere, on a team that has its act together and offers him a future worth playing for.
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