I wish this game could have taken a place one day earlier. After all, Halloween would have been a much more appropriate time for Luol Deng to return from the basketball grave.
It’s not that Deng’s game had died in the literal sense. However, he didn’t play particularly well in the Bulls’ season opening loss in Oklahoma City (13 points, 5-for-13, 2 rebounds) and he seemed virtually nonexistent in Chicago’s home opener against the Pistons (9 points, 2-for-10). In fact, Luol was benched during the fourth quarter of the Detroit game in favor of James Johnson. And, frankly, it was deserved. JJ was playing much better.
So, once again, Deng was left for dead by Bulls fans. By The Horns commenter dengsucks (real name) had this to say:
“Got to love how you went on and on about how Deng isn’t that far worse than ‘Melo and yet once again he does not show up. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter at all, now that’s what I call an impact player. Can you imagine a game where ‘Melo wouldn’t play in the fourth quarter of a close game?”
It’s true. I talked Deng up this summer. I quoted advanced stats that showed Deng’s production is at least in the neighborhood of Anthony’s. And if you believe in Win Shares, David Berri of Wages of Win showed that Deng was actually worth more than ‘Melo last season in terms of wins produced.
But 2-for-10 and a fourth quarter benching? That’s damning evidence against a player people are always ready to dog pile onto.
Deng’s legacy in Chicago will probably be determined by three factors: 1) the perception that he did not live up to his huge contract (six years and about $80 million), 2) the (somewhat apocryphal) belief that the Bulls could have acquired Kobe Bryant in a trade that included Deng, 3) and now that Bulls have passed up a chance to get ‘Melo in exchange for Luol.
Regarding point number 1: Deng’s contract is about right if you compare his production to other small forwards around the league. I’ve talked about this at length. It might be a few million dollars per year too high. But it’s not the abomination some people make it out to be, assuming you actually take the time necessary to measure his production beyond the raw numbers.
Regarding point number 2: The Bulls weren’t getting Kobe for Deng straight up, and Kobe wasn’t coming to Chicago to play on a gutted team. In fact, one report stated: “Bryant has continually threatened to veto almost any deal in which Deng would be included.” So if anything, that one’s on Kobe.
Regarding point number 3: The Bulls weren’t getting ‘Melo for Deng straight up either. Should the Bulls have crippled themselves by giving up Deng and Noah — both of whom were worth more in Wins Produced last season — for an inefficient volume scorer like Anthony? Or even Deng and Taj Gibson? And what kind of trade would the Nuggets have even accepted? There are a lot of unknowns in this scenario.
Meanwhile, Deng just keeps on keeping on. Take last night’s performance against the Trail Blazers. Deng only went off for a career-high 40 points. And his efficiency was off the charts: 14-for-19 from the field, 3-for-5 from beyond the arc, 9-for-11 from the line. Lu was aggressive. He attacked the basket. He got to the line. He didn’t hesitate on his jump shots.
He didnt’ give up on himself. Even if plenty of other people had.
Deng scored 16 points in the first quarter, during which the Bulls outscored the Blazers 32-21. It helped set the tone of the game. Chicago never looked back. Meanwhile, it was Portland’s starters — including All-Star Brandon Roy — who spent the latter half of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Of course, it wasn’t all Deng. Derrick Rose (16 points, 13 assists, 5 rebounds) had some wicked moves (like this reverse layup) and played the role of floor leader to perfection. It’s only one game, but Rose appeared to see the floor better last night than he ever did in two seasons under Vinny Del Negro. Coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls passing the ball very, very well.
To wit: The Bulls had 27 assists on 43 field goals.
Speaking of things Thibodeau has the Bulls doing very well, how about the transition game? During the preseason, Thibs said he wanted this team to run, and they sure ran against the Blazers. Chicago finished with 27 fast break points to only 10 for Portland. Guys like Rose, Deng and Noah are ideal for transition. It showed last night.
Defense was also key. Portland shot only 41 percent from the field (compared to 60 percent for the Bulls). What’s more, the Blazers — who came into the game ranked first in three-point percentage — went 0-for-14 from downtown. Some of that was just the fact that shots weren’t dropping. But Chicago players were contesting those threes too. And they weren’t dropping.
There were plenty of things to be pleased about last night. Guys were playing well. The ball was moving. Players were running hard and defending with intensity. Chicago won the rebounding battle 36-35. And of course, they got a blowout win over a quality Western Conference opponent.
Were there some concerns? Absolutely. The Bulls gave up 16 offensive rebounds and 41 free throw attempts. They also missed 13 of their 32 foul shots.
But hey, no game is perfect. The reality is: The Bulls played really, really well and provided a glimpse of how good they can be under their new coach. And Carlos Boozer isn’t even playing yet.