Luol Deng Can't Fill LeBron James' Shoes, but He Can Remove Them from View

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJuly 14, 2014

Apr 14, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) is defended by Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) and small forward LeBron James (6) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are poised to move forward from the LeBron James era with two-time All-Star Luol DengHe’ll join the Heat on a two-year, $20 million contract, per USA Today’s Sam Amick. And while he can’t fill LeBron's shoes, he’s more than capable of being a complementary cog for a contender.

Miami had a phenomenal run of success with the four-time MVP. Pat Riley’s brainchild made four straight trips to the NBA Finals and won two championships during that span. Now, the team president will be forced to innovate.

Chris Bosh decided to stick around to the tune of a five-year, $118 million deal. Dwyane Wade has also agreed to rejoin his partner in crime in South Beach, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

Deng will slide into the fold as a fresh face, and there's little reason to believe he won't succeed in his new digs.


Perfect Wingman

Nov 11, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) talks with point guard Derrick Rose (1) on the bench during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center. The Bulls won 96-81. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowsk

Now that D-Wade has re-upped with the only franchise he’s ever known, Deng will inherit a role that is comfortably familiar. He’ll act as the No. 3 scoring option behind Bosh and Wade rather than being relied upon as the go-to guy.

That’s a position on the totem pole he relished during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls.

Throughout the 2010-11 campaign—when Chicago went 62-20 behind the exploits of Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, who stayed healthy for 81 games—Deng thrived by providing balance for other offensive threats.

Although he had fewer field-goal attempts per game when compared with Rose and power forward Carlos Boozer, he brought meaningful contributions in just about every category.

The Sudanese small forward averaged 17.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. He cashed in on 50.6 percent of his shots inside the three-point arc and played his usual lockdown defense.

During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he was thrust into a larger role. When Rose played just 39 games due to injury, Deng went on to play 39.4 minutes per game (leading the team). As the main attraction on offense, his field-goal percentage on two-pointers dipped significantly—down to 43 percent.

Deng was still named to his first All-Star team that season, but it’s clear he’s better suited in a supporting role.

Luol Deng competing in the 2013 All-Star game.
Luol Deng competing in the 2013 All-Star game.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012-13 without Rose, Deng’s three-point percentage fell to 32.2 percent from 36.7 percent the year prior. That mark continued to decline last season, down to 30.2 percent (27.4 percent with Chicago before getting traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers).

In the past, the 29-year-old has been more successful taking aim from downtown when opposing defenses are trying to stop other scorers. Those weapons are going to be in place under head coach Erik Spoelstra.

Bosh is set to take on a challenge. He’ll emerge from glorified third wheel to the key player he once was with the Toronto Raptors.

Wade, meanwhile, has a chance to reestablish himself as a ball-dominant orchestrator.

Both guys are already unselfish players and above-average passers. They had to be, after all, with James in the lineup. Each All-Star adapted his playing style and sacrificed to accommodate the impact of LBJ. That led to two championship rings.

Coach Spo won't have to reinvent the wheel here. He must simply insert new moving parts into a successful, incumbent system.

The coaching staff can assign primary responsibilities to other stars and let Deng get his opportunities within the flow of the game, which fits his playing style.


Playoff Experience and Leadership

Despite losing the best player on the planet, Riley isn’t going to throw in the towel and start a complicated rebuilding process. Instead, he’s decided to revamp the roster with a new yet familiar nucleus.

The goal in Miami is still to win titles. In order to make that a reality, guys with postseason experience are a must.

In that regard, Deng undoubtedly fits the bill.

From age 20 through 27, the Duke product played 48 playoff games. He averaged a whopping 40.3 minutes during those contests, posting 16.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals.

Deng has never shied away from the postseason spotlight. More often than not, he’s played his best basketball in that setting.

Most notably, in 2006-07, he notched 22.2 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 52.4 percent during 10 playoff affairs. Longtime Heat fans will remember that's when Deng averaged 26.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in a first-round sweep against Miami just one year after D-Wade won his first title.

Additionally, advanced stats indicate that Deng has a profoundly positive effect on his team during crunch time.

While with the Cavs, Deng’s clutch statistics (games in the fourth quarter or overtime with less than five minutes left and neither team ahead by more than five points) were incredibly favorable for a team that lost 49 games. Cleveland outscored opponents by 14 points in such situations with Deng on the floor. It also had an offensive rating of 109.7 and a defensive rating of 99.3, according to

Moreover, when rumors were swirling about a rift between Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Deng addressed the negativity as follows, per The News-Herald’s Bob Finnan:

“It’s a distraction. I mean all this stuff that I hear, but when we’re in the locker room with these guys every day, they love each other. I can’t say one word or one incident, and when we got on the court, we never think twice about it.”

Frankly, that’s the type of guy you want in your favorite team’s locker room.


Realistic Expectations

Feb 26, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Luol Deng (9) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Derek Fisher (6) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TOD

Again, Deng is not going to replace the production and overall impact of James.

As the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Ira Winderman wrote, “He won’t be asked to be LeBron James. For that loss, there is no replacement part. But Sunday’s addition of Luol Deng makes the Miami Heat closer to whole than might have been expected.”

Winderman elaborated on that point by writing, “In Deng, the Heat get the type of wing defender they lacked last season outside of James, as well as a mid-range scorer who has thrived in winning situations previously.”

Deng’s impact goes far beyond the box score. He’s a true professional with a sky-high basketball IQ. Along with new role players like Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, the Heat are adding an eclectic group of guys who do a variety of things well.

As far as passing, defense and intangibles, the additions of quantity give Spoelstra leeway.

While it’s impossible to replace an alpha dog like King James, retooling the starting five (and overall roster) with a balanced attack was Riley’s best option.

The Heat aren’t as dangerous, but with the added depth, they’ll keep their winning moniker and contend in the Eastern Conference.


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