INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Luol Deng and the Cleveland Cavaliers are entering a whole new world.
The Cavs haven’t figured out how to play together consistently, how to give full effort at all times, how to win. Their key players are young and have generally accomplished little.
Deng is extremely refined, a man who steers clear of drama but knows how to handle it when it arises. He’s an adept defender and teammate, a winner.
He exemplifies everything Cavs general manager Chris Grant and Mike Brown want the Cavs to be — smooth, relaxed, aggressive, talented, unselfish, unassuming, energetic and dedicated to the cause.
"He adds to the culture of what we’re trying to do here," Brown said. "It’s a cultural of creating winning habits, while also understanding that winning means we have to play defense. He’s definitely a two-way player that can add an amount of professionalism, a maturity, and winning ingredients to any ball club."
Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng scores past Toronto Raptors point guard Greivis Vasquez during the first quarter at the United Center.
Deng, 28, practiced with the Cavs for the first time Wednesday. Before that, he spent nine years with the Chicago Bulls. He came to Cleveland via the Andrew Bynum trade. The Cavs gave up Bynum’s contract and a handful of (practically meaningless) draft picks.
Even during end-of-practice shooting drills, Deng just looked different than everybody else. Not in stature, but in body language — in the way he carried himself. There is a recognizable polish to the man, to his game.
Deng talked about how strange it was to be playing for a team other than the Bulls, but how he has firm grasp of the fact basketball is his job and "it’s a business." He talked of the challenges ahead of his new team, how he wants to be a key component in overcoming the obstacles of the past.
"I want to work hard, I want to fit in as much as I can and I want to turn it around," he said. "I want to help the guys win games and just have a positive attitude toward everything."
Those things have not defined these Cavs (12-23). They’ve struggled to form an identity. They’ve struggled to see a bright side — perhaps because there hasn’t been much of one to see. They’ve been maddeningly inconsistent, a little moody, a little immature.
But even when things started to get bad for the Bulls, they approached everything with dignity. Deng was basically the ring leader in the department.
He understands how to get after opponents and bring his teammates together.
He’s certainly not the best small forward in the NBA, but he’s certainly among the most underrated. He can’t lift the Cavs from the ashes on his own — but he can show them how to go about getting to where they need to go.
"I really feel like it’s a great group of guys, and it’s going to be easy to fit in," Deng said. "And, you know, just lead by example."
Deng said he was surprised by the trade. His mother wondered if he had done something wrong. But this is the reality of today’s NBA, where financial matters and expiring contracts can turn into a steal of deal.
No one seems to take better advantage of that than Grant. He’s been a master at convincing opposing teams to deliver some of their most valuable assets for almost nothing in return.
Now, the Cavs must finally make something of it. They have to be more than bunch of separate pretty cool parts — Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, etc. All bring something unique, something about which to get excited.
But they haven’t figured out how to make it happen together. That is something Deng can teach them. If so, that will be his greatest asset.
Before Deng, the Cavs had some promise. Now, they have someone who understands what it takes to reach it.