No one in the NBA defends LeBron James like Luol Deng.
But that’s not why the Cavaliers utilized the contract of dead-weight center Andrew Bynum and a handful of draft picks to swipe Deng from the Chicago Bulls in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
The Cavs like Deng because he represents everything they hope to become.
He’s a team-first guy, a locker-room guy, a guy who comes from a successful program that specializes in defense.
Are you listening, Cavs coach Mike Brown? We’re talkin’ about defense.
Oh, Deng also fills a need. The Cavs haven’t had an All-Star small forward since You Know Who kicked this city in the crotch on national television back in 2010.
Deng has been an All-Star for two straight years. He’s won the NBA Sportsmanship Award. He polished his game at Duke, just like the Cavs’ other All-Star, point guard Kyrie Irving. Like so many former Blue Devils, Deng is sophisticated, refined.
He is an intelligent player who forces nothing offensively, and excels at the end of the floor Brown covets.
Most guys who play for Brown see their scoring average dip. They aren’t used to defending the Brown way. As Brown will tell you, it takes some time for their legs to adjust.
That may not happen with Deng. He played for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau since 2010. Thibodeau is widely considered the master of NBA team defense. If you don’t defend under Thibs, you don’t play. Period.
And even those who do try to defend don’t play much unless they do it well. Deng is one of the best. He’s athletic, wiry and strong. He holds his position and understands the idea of weakside help. Opposing swingmen hate trying to deal with Deng.
Oh, did we mention Deng is no slouch on offense, either?
In 23 games this season, he’s averaging a career-high 19.0 points on 45 percent shooting, and grabbing 6.9 rebounds.
The Cavs’ other small forwards, Alonzo Gee and Earl Clark, average a combined 9.6 points and make around 38 percent of their shots.
It’s safe to say Deng is an upgrade.
On top of all that, again, he brings stability and professionalism to a locker room that could sure use a dose of both. Sort of the opposite of Bynum.
When Bynum was suspended, Irving said, "It’s a terrible situation with our team internally right now."
It’s not much better on the floor, as the Cavs (11-23) are right up there with the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks as the NBA’s biggest busts. The Nets and Knicks seem to be getting better, though. Until the trade, the Cavs just kept getting worse.
They enter Tuesday’s home game against the Philadelphia 76ers as losers in 10 of their previous 12. The two wins in that stretch came over Orlando and Milwaukee. At home. In overtime.
Good grief, that hurts just to type.
Maybe Deng is the answer. He sure seems like the ideal fit.
Of course, there are a couple of minor concerns.’
He’s been injured quite a bit lately. He underwent a spinal tap during the Bulls’ playoff series against James and the Miami Heat last season. Complications followed and Deng was hospitalized.
This year, he’s struggled with Achilles issues. Two weeks ago, he said the injury has been nagging since late November, and has bothered him more of late. But he’s played at least 29 minutes in each of the past three games, so who knows? Maybe it’s improving.
Also, Deng’s contract expires at the end of the season. That means he becomes an unrestricted free agent. That means he’s free to sign with anyone.
The Bulls offered him a $30 million extension just last week, according to Yahoo! Sports. Deng turned it down. That more or less led to this trade.
So Cavs general manager Chris Grant has to consider that, and surely, he has.
But the Cavs would have chased Deng in free agency anyway. Now they can structure a more attractive deal than if he had remained with the Bulls. Because of NBA rules, the Cavs can also put together a more lucrative offer than any other team.
As for the here and now, Deng could be a major solution to the Cavs’ issues. Grant had better hope so. The Cavs had better hope so, too.
Today, that hope is alive. The Cavs got their man.
They got a wing defender. They got a scorer. They got an All-Star, on the floor and in the timeout huddle.
Something has needed to go right for this franchise for quite some time, and Luol Deng just might be it.