The Curious Case Of Luol Deng

Luol Deng isn’t the first free agent signing that Miami Heat fans have questioned.

After Heat President Pat Riley said that Deng was one of the most important free agent signings in Heat history, as well as being the guy who is sliding into the starting spot that was vacated by You Know Who, expectations of Heat fans were pretty high for Deng.

And in light of a 14-18 start that has seen the reigning four-time defending Eastern Conference Champions fall to eighth in the conference, frustrations are running high.

In certain circles of the Heat fanbase, Deng is being viewed as something of a disappointment. The Heat’s new third wheel has seen his per game numbers in points (14.7), rebounds (4.9), and assists (1.7) decrease below his career averages so far in his first season in Miami. Not helping matters is the sad start to this season that has seen the Heat look like a shell of its former self. But with the first two members of the Heat’s new Big Three off to great starts, it’s what the new third banana can’t seem to do that has drawn the ire of fans.

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Deng has now assumed the role of what Chris Bosh went through during the 2010 season – a season that saw Bosh’s numbers drop from his time in Toronto to numbers that weren’t what fans were expecting out of him. Combined that with Bosh’s near-max contract that he signed that summer, and a number of Heat fans often voiced their displeasure with Bosh.

Now that attention turns to Deng, as he is tasked with complimenting Bosh and Dwyane Wade in helping lead the Heat back to the playoffs. What gets lost in the shuffle is that he has played well, shooting 50.2% from the field – second highest of his career – and 37.5% from the three-point land – third highest of his career. He actually has a higher effective shooting percentage (FG% that is adjusted for made threes being 1.5 times more valuable than a two) and true shooting percentage (a % that is adjusted to include threes and free throws) than both Wade and Bosh.

Yet Heat fans seem to focus on that fact that, again, he’s only averaging 14.7 point per game for the season, and is only taking 10.9 shots per game, which is his lowest since his rookie year. Miami fans seem to have misunderstood that type of player that Deng is, whether it be because of his former All-Star stature, being a key component in the Bulls success of the last few years, or as a man with a two year, $20 million contract. They were hoping for a player that could carry the offense for stretches at a time, whenever Wade or Bosh were on the bench.

Truth be told, that’s not that kind of player he is.

He’s not a “Get out of the way, I got this” player, nor is he the creative distributor that can fire passes all over the court with terrific court vision. No, he’s the kind of player that needs to be set up to be effective. He needs plays ran for him that put him in positions that he can maximize his ability. He’s a smart cutter to the basket, as well as a savvy shooter. But he needs the ball in his hands to be useful (I mean, does Mario Chalmers really need to take a little over nine shots per game, or Norris Cole to take a little over seven? Those couldn’t go to Deng?) The Heat are 5-0 when he scores over 20 points in a game, so he can be a big help to this team. And since sitting out December 7th against Milwaukee, Deng is averaging 16 points, on 54.7% shooting from the field over those 13 games.

He’s just not an alpha dog.

He’s never averaged more than 20 points per game in a season, and has shot over 50% only once (not including this season). He’s trying to fit into a new offense that sees its best player run the show, while its best big man also needs the ball to be effective. He plays exceptionally well as a second or third option on a good team.

And that really shouldn’t be a surprise. We saw that in Chicago, when Derrick Rose was lost to injuries for the 2012-13 season, the Bulls were relegated to a slow, ineffective offensive attack that dragged games through the mud that helped play into the Bulls’ hands. At the center of that was Deng, who led the Bulls “high octane” attack by scoring 16.5 points per game, on 42.6% shooting. That would be the third worst field goal percentage of his career, as he was put in the unfamiliar place of carrying the scoring load for a Bulls team that set scoring back 15 years.

The following season, Rose ended up playing 10 games, thus forcing Deng back into the spotlight. Deng played well, scoring 19 points per game – which would have been a career high, had he kept up the pace – until he was traded midseason to the Cavaliers, where his soul would die and he slumped his way through 40 games of misery, before ending his season due to injury.

Some fans might be clamoring for another small forward that the Heat had targeted in free agency – Trevor Ariza. If you recall, the former Wizard signed a four year, $32 million contract with the Houston Rockets, while Miami decided to go with Deng. Since the Rockets have taken off (sorry) to a scorching start in light of losing Chandler Parsons, Ariza has slid into place as a key piece to an improved defense.

But the head-to-head comparisons between Deng and Ariza favors the Heat’s small forward. To date, Deng is averaging more points, a higher field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage (one thing that Ariza was supposed to help Houston out with), effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. Taking it a step further, current Grizzlies executive and former ESPN stat head John Hollinger came up with a formula called player efficiency rating (PER), which attempts to sum up all a player’s contributions into one number. Using this rating, Deng is ninth amongst small forwards with 17.87, and Ariza is a very solid fortieth with 11.10. By Hollinger’s definition, Deng is just below the category for “solid second option”.

Problem has been defensively, which shows a decisive advantage for Ariza. As we know, the Heat have been as effective as a corpse on defense, and Deng hasn’t helped all that much. Deng has a defensive rating of 106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions so far this season (although that’s good enough for seventh best on the Heat. Shows how bad Miami has been this year), while Ariza’s is at 95.7, on a much better Rockets team.

But figures like percentages and sabermetrics don’t mean much to Heat fans looking for results. Those results tend to be points being scored and wins being gained, and right not Deng isn’t stuffing the stat sheet, and the Heat aren’t winning. Winning makes everything so much better; sadly the Heat have been such a mess that fans will come down on those that don’t seem to be carrying their own weight. Right now, guys like Chalmers and Cole wear those targets, as did, until recently, Danny Granger.

However, Deng has done as well with what he’s able to work with. Being the third guy behind a resurgent Dwyane Wade and a Chris Bosh finally being able to be a major focal point of the offense isn’t all that bad. It would be better if the Heat were winning, but only time will tell if that will change.

If the Heat can turn things around, you can believe that Luol Deng will be an important reason for why they did.

 

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