Luol Deng is eighth in the latest version of our 2014 Free Agent Power Rankings, but there’s a strong chance that he’ll be the most valuable free agent changing teams. It seems that there’s at least a better shot of that happening than there is of Deng re-signing in Cleveland, given the rumors that have surrounded him since the Cavs brought him in via trade on January 7th. Cleveland was 19-21 with Deng in the lineup, and while that’s better than the team’s record without him, his arrival didn’t exactly bring about drastic change to a moribund Cavs franchise. Deng began to privately express displeasure with the Cavs shortly after the trade, and a dispatch from last month indicated that Deng was simply counting the days until he could leave.
Deng took a much more positive tone in public, saying shortly after the trade deadline that he was pleased with the direction of the franchise. Less than a week after Cleveland acquired him, he expressed a willingness to sign an extension and referred to the Cavs as an “amazing organization.” It wouldn’t be in character for Deng, the winner of season’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and a tireless worker in his days with the Bulls, to lash out or undermine his team in on-the-record statements. Still, it appears he holds some misgivings about the Cavs, given the reports that have leaked, and it’s telling that his most forthcoming statements about his future came months ago. Extension chatter has vanished, too.
The Cavs were in talks with several teams about flipping Deng at the deadline, a sign that the club isn’t confident about its chances to keep the small forward, who turned 29 on Wednesday. The Wizards, Pistons, Pacers, Kings, Warriors and Mavs were among the teams reportedly in the conversation, though the Cavs were apparently merely gauging the market and never closed in on a deal. Still, some teams seemed reluctant to take on a player who can walk away this summer, reflecting a greater sentiment of uncertainty over just where Deng is headed in the offseason.
The Lakers and Suns have interest, and the Mavs, Celtics, Magic and Bobcats are reportedly likely suitors as well. Deng, when asked, didn’t rule out the notion of returning to the Bulls, though that seems a long shot. Agent Herb Rudoy has publicly pointed to Andre Iguodala‘s four-year, $48MM deal with the Warriors as analogous to Deng’s value, and some believe Rudoy will seek annual salaries greater than the $13.5MM Josh Smith makes. Deng was upset with the assertion that he sought an extension of $15MM a year from the Bulls before Chicago traded him, so it would be surprising if Rudoy attempted to go that high. Still, Deng scoffed at Chicago’s final offer of three years at $10MM each, so he’ll almost certainly seek more than that in free agency.
The seventh pick in the 2004 draft put up numbers this season that were similar to the ones he had the past two years, when he was an All-Star with the Bulls, though much of that is a product of strong performance in the months leading up to the trade. He was scoring 19.0 points and dishing out 3.7 assists per game in Chicago this season, which would have been career highs in spite of him having played fewer minutes than he ever had under Tom Thibodeau. Those minutes took an even sharper decline once he arrived in Cleveland, down to his lowest rate in six years, and his production suffered accordingly. Some of that could simply be a regression to the mean after his hot start, but Deng’s half-season with the Cavs hasn’t been memorable.
Deng’s most valuable contributions are usually on defense, and indeed the Cavs were a better defensive team with him on the floor, giving up 1.1 fewer points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. He didn’t revolutionize the Cavs defense, which finished tied with the Magic for the 13th most points per 100 possessions allowed, but drastic improvement was probably too much to ask, considering the shortcomings of the rest of the team’s starting unit.
His half-season as a Cavalier probably didn’t hurt his value, since he had such a strong start with the Bulls that his performance essentially evened out. Some teams may worry that Deng was a product of an effective system in Chicago, and that he’d more closely resemble the Cleveland version of himself on most NBA teams, but Thibodeau, for all his accomplishments as a coach, is no offensive genius, and Deng’s defense has held steady.
The shock of a midseason trade and the turmoil in Cleveland, where GM Chris Grant lost his job just weeks after acquiring Deng, probably didn’t help him play his best. Injuries to his back, ankle and Achilles tendon all forced him to miss time, which helps explain his offensive drop-off, too. Perhaps the ailments signal that his body is breaking down as he nears 30, after having led the league in minutes per game the past two seasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his suitors insist on non-guaranteed money at the back end of his deal.
Deng is no superstar, and he won’t ask to be paid like one. He’s been a valuable starter for eight playoff teams in his 10 seasons, and he became an All-Defensive Second Team selection under Thibodeau’s guidance in 2011/12. He’s the sort of player who can help an established team that’s ready to start contending, and he’d be a better fit with teams like the Mavs, Wizards and Suns than the Lakers, Magic, or any other team with cap flexibility but without a semblance of a playoffs-worthy core. Deng might have to settle for salaries closer to Iguodala’s than Smith’s to fit into the sort of ascendant team that’s ideal for him, but that might be the best way for him to sustain his value for his next contract, particularly if his new coach watches his minutes. His signing won’t be July’s leading story, but it might make a significant difference come the following June.