Luol Deng had a trying 2013-14 season.
The veteran small forward saw production downticks in several significant statistical categories and then had his life uprooted when the perennial contender Chicago Bulls traded him to the teetering Cleveland Cavaliers at midseason.
The Bulls were unable to lock Deng into a contract extension, and for fear of losing the forward for nothing, they traded him for a package that included Andrew Bynum and multiple draft picks. (Chicago immediately waived Bynum, before his contract guarantee kicked in.)
Even his offseason proved to be a tumultuous one. Deng found himself at the heart of a scandal when Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry was recorded during a conference call making disparaging remarks about Africans in reference to Deng, who is from Sudan.
He then signed a two-year, $20 million contract to join the Miami Heat and replace the departed LeBron James. Twenty million bucks can paper over a lot of problems, but this is still an unenviable situation.
Coupled with the twin facts that Deng was entering his age-29 season and had already played over 24,000 regular-season minutes in the Association, and it looked like 2014-15 wouldn’t be much better than the season that preceded it.
But then something surprising happened. Things got better. Much better.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Deng leads the team with 2.5 win shares. Deng also leads Miami in wins produced with 4.05, and according to BoxscoreGeeks.com, his .184 wins produced per 48 minutes is 84 percent better than league average. It’s also, by this measure, more productive than he’s been on a per-minute basis since 2006-07.
The key ingredient to Deng’s mini-resurgence is his efficiency as a shooter.
This comes as something of a surprise. While Deng has a well-rounded game, putting the ball in the basket has always been a relative weakness for him. According to BoxscoreGeeks.com, his career true shooting percentage of 52.7 is 0.8 percentage points below what an average small forward provides.
In fact, when he signed with the Heat, there were concerns that he and Wade would make an ill-fitting pair. Neither posed much of a threat from the perimeter, the thinking went, so defenses would be able to crowd the paint, stifling the pace-and-space offense that Miami made it’s calling card during the Big Three era.
These concerns, it appears, were off-base. So far this season, the 6’9” forward has been more efficient from the floor than ever before. His 58.7 true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com, if it holds up, would be the highest in a single season during his 11-season career and is 6 percentage points above his career average and nearly 7 above what he mustered in 2013-14.
This improvement is due to an across-the-board uptick in efficiency. Deng is shooting 36.3 percent from three-point arc, compared to a career average of 33.1, and 55.6 percent from two-point range, well above his career 48.1 percent average from that range.
Furthermore, he’s shooting better than his average from every other segment of the floor. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s shooting 67.7 percent from within three feet, 44.8 percent from three to 10, 48.1 percent from 10-16 and 41.6 percent from 16-23 feet.
Deng's production has allowed Miami's offense to produce at a reasonably high level, despite the absence of LeBron James and the continued presence of Norris Cole. Miami's 55.7 true shooting percentage, per ESPN.com, is seventh in the NBA. (Granted, the Heat's overall offensive efficiency is just 17th, largely because Miami is 27th in the NBA in offensive rebounding and 26th in turnovers.)
Deng has over-performed to such an extent that it suddenly seems possible that he would turn down the second year of his contract (player option) in search of a lengthier deal.
If this happens, and Deng finds a new home, the Heat might find themselves as winners too.
Miami has its books set so it can make a run at the talented 2016 free-agent crop, but it has significant financial commitments in 2015-16, which would prevent the franchise from making a run at the less heralded—but perhaps more promising—2015 class. Freeing itself of a $10 million commitment to Deng would alleviate that burden.
It’s in this way that Deng’s modest bounceback is a rare win-win for both player and franchise. It’s put the forward in a position to lengthen his career, while perhaps putting his team in a position to shorten its wilderness period.