In case you didn’t know, tonight marks the first time the Bulls will face a team who employs Luol Deng. While the implications of tonight’s game have, by this point, been well-covered, I want to cover this somewhat momentous event with an eye on the past, on properly appreciating how much Luol Deng meant to this team and to me.
I’ve said this before, but I’m fairly certain I’ve seen Luol Deng play more basketball games than I have any other human being who has ever existed. I started watching Bulls basketball in earnest around 2002 or 2003, after having been a casual, catch-games-when-they’re-on-no-I-don’t-have-a-favorite-team sort of observer since around 1997, when I was old enough to really grasp the concepts of the sport. Deng was the #2 prospect in his high school class behind some fellow named LeBron James (apologies if I’ve misspelled that poor, forgotten soul’s name). Luol Deng’s arrival, along with Ben Gordon’s, was the first real time I felt a connection to an incoming player. I was excited, because I enjoyed Deng in college (with the exception of his 25 point outburst against North Carolina, back when I considered myself a UNC fan), and greatly anticipated following his progression. After an injury-riddled and inconsistent rookie season, Deng exploded, averaging 18 and 7 on .517 shooting while playing all 82 games in 2006-2007. He was 21 years old.
In late 2007, amid swirling trade rumors, Kobe Bryant dismissed a potential trade to the Bulls if Luol Deng was involved. That is how great his reputation was at that point. In hindsight, it’s a silly thing, but he really did look like a worldbeater. Then, the injuries starting piling up, culminating in a 49 game campaign in 2008-2009 that saw Deng miss a huge chunk of the tail end of the season and the Bulls’ epic 7 game series against the Boston Celtics. He faced no small amount of criticism, criticisms which were exacerbated by his recent signing of a 6 year, $71 million extension. Some of the criticism came even from his own team, who publicly challenged him to play through what was later determined to be a stress fracture. After Rose’s emergence, Deng seemed in many ways to be a player without a defined role or real fit on the team for the future. A transitional player. In Rose’s second year, he posted averages of 17.6 points and a still career high 7.3 rebounds, and yet, his place on the team for the long-term was questionable.
With the arrival of Tom Thibodeau, Deng’s place on the team was set in stone. Thibodeau, whose defensive system requires an active, aggressive wing defender to alleviate pressure on the bigs in the pick and roll, seemed to be a hand in glove fit with Deng, whose defensive acumen was, at that point, a consistently underrated aspect of his game. Under Coach Thibodeau, it became his calling card. While an attempt to excise the dreaded long two point shot from his arsenal was ultimately unsuccessful, Deng took over 100 three pointers in all three of his full seasons under Tom Thibodeau after doing so only once in his first six seasons with the team. Perhaps most remarkably, he transformed his image from a “brittled boned, finesse” player into perhaps the league’s preeminent iron man, averaging well over 38 minutes per game in all three of his seasons under Thibs.
In both 2011-12 and 2012-13, Deng was awarded with All-Star selections, which drew a noticeable amount of ire from the hallowed depths of basketball twitter, ire which was, objectively justified. Deng shot below .430 from the field and below .370 from three in both of those seasons, numbers which hardly scream “All-Star.” And yet, I couldn’t help but feel happy for him, and not just because he deserved it in 2007, 2010, and 2011. Because, in a very literal way, Deng has sacrificed more than most. He’d be the first to tell you that basketball has done wonders for him, his family, and his home. He famously wore a shirt honoring Africa during the introductions of his first All-Star game, and recently requested to be introduced as hailing from “South Sudan” and not Duke University. That good things have happened to Luol Deng because he is good at basketball is true. What this fails to take into account is the fact that all of the good that has come from Luol Deng being good at basketball is a direct result of the man himself. It can be argued that he is “more” philanthropic than any active NBA player. The attempt to quantify such things inherently weakens them, but it is true. No NBA player could be said to do more good with their money than Luol Deng. Not only has he sacrificed in this way, but also for his second home, the United Kingdom, where he was long been the anchor of their national team, to the point that he famously eschewed corrective surgery on the torn ligament in his wrist to lead his countrymen in the Olympic games they hosted, where they were summarily trounced. Who led the 2012 Olympics in minutes played? Luol Deng, of course.
All this is to say that despite his no longer being a member of the Chicago Bulls, Luol Deng’s presence is one that will never entirely leave this team (as it is currently constructed). As long as Tom Thibodeau remains at the helm, someone will play “the Luol Deng role,” (which seems to have at least temporarily been forced upon poor Jimmy Butler, who isn’t nearly the same sort of shooter). While permanent changes might be incoming, Deng’s tenure should be remembered as one of remarkable professionalism and stability. The raw statistics of his tenure are impressive: he’s top 10 in team history in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, three pointers, total field goals, free throws, and win shares, but a simpler statistic more properly conveys his importance, I think. From the first year after the dissolution of the Jordan/Pippen dynasty (1998-99) to Deng’s rookie season (2004-2005), the Bulls were a combined 119-341, a .258 winning percentage. They averaged 19.8 wins per season, and the high water mark was a 30 win season in 2002-2003. From 2004-2005 to Deng’s last full season (last year, 2012-2013), the Bulls were a combined 409-313, a .566 winning percentage. They averaged 45.4 wins per season, with a low water mark of 33 wins in 2007-2008. Every year that Luol Deng was on the roster was better than the best year they had before him. Around draft time, a lot is put into the concept of a “franchise changing player.” Given that the Bulls managed to better after him than they were before him for an entire decade, I’d say Luol Deng fits that moniker.
Tonight, for the first time, I will actively root against the NBA team that Luol Deng plays for. I will do so willingly, and without remorse, but under no circumstances imaginable will I ever root against him as a person. He is, in all honesty, more important to my Bulls fandom than Michael Jordan has ever or will ever be. I’m certainly prouder to have had him represent the city I love. Luol Deng is not scheduled to play in Chicago until next season. As his contract is set to expire, we cannot know for sure which uniform it will be with. We can know that it won’t look right, and that we might never get used to it. Whenever that day is, whenever he is introduced in the away colors and not the home ones, if the crowd’s reaction is anything less than unanimous, sustained applause, then it will be a response that is beneath the caliber of player and person Luol Deng has proven to be over the past ten years. As ever, we did not deserve him.