The Atlanta Hawks are already going to be a dangerous squad in 2014-15.
Bringing Al Horford back to a team that pushed the Indiana Pacers to the brink of elimination in his absence tends to do that. Let's not forget—and yes, the Eastern Conference was historically weak last season—the Hawks were on pace to earn the No. 3 seed before Big Al went down.
However, general manager Danny Ferry isn't content to rely on internal improvement and returns to health, hence the interest in using some (or all) of the Hawks' remaining cap space to chase after Luol Deng.
"While free agent small forward Luol Deng isn't expected to visit with interested teams until next week, the Atlanta Hawks appear to be making an early pitch," reported USA Today's Sam Amick early on Friday morning. "According to a person with knowledge of the situation, Deng was expected to speak with Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer about the possible partnership on Thursday night."
Since then, things are progressing nicely:
Told talks advancing between free-agent F Luol Deng (Cavs) and Hawks, though nothing final.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) July 5, 2014
Deng has plenty of stellar options in free agency, but the Hawks—who present a perfect fit for his talents—are right up there with the best of 'em.
Even though Atlanta always seems to fly below the radar, Deng would be a highly beneficial acquisition.
If there's one calling card in Deng's hand, it's his ability to shut down defensive wings. That's the role he's filled over the course of his career, particularly while thriving under Tom Thibodeau for the Chicago Bulls.
It's no easy feat to make the Bulls better on defense when you're on the court, seeing as Thibs' system makes everyone look good and largely prevents production drop-offs when one star takes a seat on the bench. Nonetheless, Chicago allowed 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he played during the 2013-14 season, per Basketball-Reference.com, and that falls right in line with the rest of his career:
|DRtg on Court||DRtg off Court|
There are aberrations, sure. But for the most part, Deng almost always makes his team much stronger on the defensive end. Over the course of his career, he's cut a full point per 100 possessions when he's shutting down the other team's best wing player.
And that's exactly what Atlanta needs.
"It's no secret that the Hawks are in need of another small forward/wing defender," writes Chris Vivlamore for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Deng (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) would fit such a need on both ends of the court."
Kyle Korver, thanks to his three-point-shooting prowess, is locked in at one of the wing spots, and he's capable of lining up at either the 2 or the 3. DeMarre Carroll was the other starter in 2013-14, but he's best suited coming off the bench to provide depth for the Hawks. While he's a strong defender, a similarly strong one who can play stellar offense (more on that later) is ideal.
The dot-connecting in free agency is a fascinating exercise: Example No. 1 - Sefolosha signing helps Hawks w/ Deng - http://t.co/1GS8E271VF— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 4, 2014
When the Hawks signed Thabo Sefolosha to a three-year deal for $12 million, they gained a player who would immediately become the best perimeter stopper on the roster. However, as the Oklahoma City Thunder displayed throughout the 2014 postseason, Sefolosha is now more suited for an off-the-bench role, one in which he can hide his offensive shortcomings.
That's not true for Deng, which allows him to spend more time on the court, thus making more of an impact. Also notable is his awareness on this less-glamorous end; the small forward isn't afraid to call himself out and note that he needs to make improvements.
"I'm making a lot of mistakes," Deng told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal about his early struggles with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "People who don’t know the system might not notice it, but there’s a couple rotations I’m putting the team in bad situations because I’m not used to it."
With an offseason to learn Atlanta's system and a desire to redeem himself, Deng isn't going to be uttering any similar quotes in any new location. And even if he does, his offense will mitigate any initial defensive struggles.
It's no secret the Hawks like shooting lots of three-pointers.
Only the Houston Rockets took more triples than Mike Budenholzer's squad during the 2013-14 regular season, and Atlanta took that to another level during its first-round series with the Pacers. Apparently, there was no such thing as a bad shot from beyond the arc, especially during Game 7:
The Hawks broke the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a playoff game with 44 tonight.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2014
Matt Femrite of The Washington Post details just how reliant the Hawks were on the three-ball early in the series:
One of the reasons for that is how much they stretch the floor, ranking second during the regular season in three-point rate at 31.6 percent. Atlanta has been especially reliant on the three-pointer during the playoffs, as well, comfortably leading all playoff participants with a three-point rate of 39.7.
In other words, the Hawks love the three-ball. They’ve taken between 29 to 34 three-pointers in each of the first four games, helping make for something quite unusual: Atlanta has attempted more three-pointers than free throws by a comfortable margin, 124 to 101.
The Hawks finished the series with three-point attempts comprising 41.7 percent of their shots from the field. No other team topped the Miami Heat's 32.6 percent during the playoffs, per Basketball-Reference.com.
How is this relevant? Because Deng is another wing who can fire away from beyond the arc, contrary to what his recent numbers might say.
The small forward did indeed hit only 30.2 percent of his deep attempts in 2013-14—27.4 percent with Chicago and 31.5 percent with the Cavs. And that was the follow-up campaign to a season in which he knocked down just 32.2 percent.
However, both those go-rounds involved Deng serving as a primary option for his team. With Derrick Rose knocked out of the lineup, he was relied upon for far too much offense, preventing him from filling his normal tertiary role for the Bulls.
The last time he was playing alongside Rose—playing in the same type of role he'll have with the Hawks—was during the 2011-12 season. He shot 36.7 percent from downtown while taking four attempts per game. And in 2010-11, those numbers were 34.5 and 4.1, respectively.
If that's the type of production Atlanta can get, Deng will easily be worth whatever price he realistically commands. Of course, it also helps that he's one of the better distributors at his position.
Last season, he averaged 2.9 assists per game, and his assist rate was the highest its been since his rookie season. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he was one of just 16 qualified forwards with an assist rate on the right side of 14.5.
That list is comprised of superstars (Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony), All-Stars and fringe All-Star candidates (David West, Nicolas Batum, Chandler Parsons, Paul Millsap, Rudy Gay, Gordon Hayward, Deng) and others who weren't on that level in 2013-14 (Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Josh McRoberts, Gerald Wallace).
Obviously, that's not a bad group to be a part of.
But what makes this especially important is Budenholzer's style of offense, one that prioritizes impressive ball movement from everyone on the court.
While Al Horford was healthy, from the start of the season through a Dec. 26 contest with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who didn't yet roster Deng, the Hawks generated assists on 66.3 percent of their made shots from the field, per NBA.com's statistical databases. No team posted a higher number, and Deng's Bulls were in second place at 63.3.
Did the Hawks drop off after Horford tore his pectoral muscle? Nope, the system held strong, and the number actually rose to 66.7 percent, giving Atlanta the top mark in the league at the end of the season.
Ball movement isn't just important in Atlanta; it's of paramount importance.
According to 82games.com, Deng earned a passing rating of 5.4 with the Bulls and a 3.5 while playing for Cleveland.
Let's compare that to the incumbents on the Atlanta perimeter: Korver (3.4), Carroll (2.8) and John Jenkins (0.6). You can add in the 3.0 rating that Sefolosha earned with the Thunder if you so desire.
Right away, Deng would rather easily be the best distributor on Atlanta's roster, at least among those who play either shooting guard or small forward. And with his passing prowess, the Hawks' offensive schemes would function all the more smoothly.
Should Luol Deng be the Hawks' top free-agency target?
Essentially, Deng completes the checklist for the Hawks.
He's a standout defender, one who could team up with Sefolosha and Carroll to form a terrifying group of perimeter preventers. He's an adept three-point shooter who wouldn't hesitate to fire away when asked to do so by Budenholzer and the rest of the coaching staff. He's a fantastic passer, fully capable of aiding the already impressive ball movement utilized in the friendly confines of Philips Arena.
In other words, he's perfect for the Hawks.