Luol Deng And the Turning Of the Tide
Luol Deng is the only Chicago Bulls player still with the organization from when I started covering the team six years ago. To take you on a painful ride in the NBA time machine, that was Tyrus Thomas’s rookie year and the first season of the ill-fated Ben Wallace experiment. Things really did feel as though they were looking up heading into that season, and Deng had seen enough bad at that point to have hope that the time had finally come for some good.
But things weren’t all that good. Not yet, anyway. While competitive, the Bulls weren’t great, which actually sounds a lot like the way some people have viewed Luol Deng’s career.
Already, though, this feels like a career-year for Deng in a lot of ways, especially as it pertains to rebounding. He’s averaging a career-high 7.5 rpg this season, and at one point early in the year, he even led the team in boards per game. So what’s with the sudden rash of rebounding?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Deng admitted. “I’m playing just as hard as I was last year, but sometimes it’s just the way things go. I will always have games where I’m going to rebound better than others, but as a team we’ve had a rebounding mindset.”
He’s right about that rebounding mentality. Chicago leads the league in team rebounds with 45.4 per game, and they’re also tops in rebounding differential at +6.4. To reiterate how dominant they’ve been on the glass, the second place team, the L.A. Lakers, have a rebounding differential of +3.6. Deng’s strong numbers are just a part of that.
Charlotte Bobcats head coach Paul Silas knows Deng’s big year has gone way beyond rebounding, however, as he admitted after Saturday’s loss to the Bulls at the United Center.
“He knows exactly when he has a shot. He knows how to defend. He’s a hard worker,” Silas admitted. “His attitude is ‘I’m going to be successful every night.’ He goes out and does that. He comes up with big threes when they need them. When they rotate the ball around to him he constantly scores. He just kind of breaks your heart.”
Chicago, like a lot of teams, has been experiencing a rash of injuries, which has been heartbreaking in and of itself. Deng injured his wrist in that Bobcats game bad enough to require an MRI on Sunday. We don’t know how bad it is yet, but x-rays after the game came back negative. Losing Deng when Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah already are ailing would make things much more difficult for the Bulls, but somehow, despite the injuries, Chicago still has managed the best record in the league.
Thus far, Deng has been the stand-in leader for this club while those guys are out. Even if he now will miss some time, he has confidence in how his teammates will respond.
“We play very well together as a team,” Deng said. “When someone’s out or not having a good night we have a lot of guys who can fill in that role and step up. Every night we’re getting the best out of each other. If one guy doesn’t have it we recognize that early on and if someone’s got it going we try to make them the focus.”
Deng seems to have had more games than usual this season in which he is that focus, and that’s led to a great start to a great year for both him and his team.
He’s come a long way from those early, painful Bulls seasons. He came into the league with Ben Gordon in 2004, a year after Kirk Hinrich was drafted, with hopes that the trio could turn the team around. Gordon, Hinrich, and even Wallace weren’t able to do that, but Deng is the guy that has persisted. Give Rose all the credit in the world for saving the franchise, but give Deng some credit, too. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and he’s worked hard to get where he’s gotten.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m on the kind of team where we come out every night and the only thing on all of our minds is winning. It makes the game a lot easier, and it makes your job a lot more fun.”
Nothing is more fun than winning, which is what the Bulls continue to do. Whatever Deng’s stats may be, if Chicago wins a championship in 2012, this will be a career year for every player on that roster. It’ll just mean more to the guy who’s been here longer than anybody else.