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Stalled at a crossroads, Cleveland Cavaliers get a jump in the form of Luol Deng

At 11-23 the Cavaliers were a sinking ship, is Luol Deng enough to right the boat?

Gregory Shamus

It's hard to point to very many things as a strength when you're covering a team that is 12-23. The Cleveland Cavaliers, a preseason darling of sorts, have by and large been a big disappointment this year. Their draft class has made zero impact. Their number one overall pick has as many story lines this year as the team itself. Injuries, weight gain, asthma, sleep apnea, shooting slumps, weight loss, booing, quitting, more booing.

Their Free Agent class made probably a negative impact, given top signing Andrew Bynum served as one of the worst players in basketball in his time on the floor. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee continued to live up to a proud tradition of embarrassing small forward play, cast in the mold of 2010 trendsetters Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, and Christian Eyenga. The GM may or may not be on the hot seat. Players roles have changed; the team is really only consistent in being inconsistent.

Oh, and on top of that, there has already been a heated team meeting that may or may not have led to an altercation between two players, AND the previously mentioned prized free agent signing did something no one will divulge any details on, and was subsequently kicked off the team.

I think that covers it.

Wait, no, did you know that LeBron James is going to be a free agent this summer? Really. I even hear he used to be a Cavalier at one point.

Very rarely does a team with so many needs fill them in one swift move. It would seem to be, and probably is, almost impossible. Still, Chris Grant may have come close. Amid a draft record that has sparked endless debate at all levels of basketball media, Luol Deng is another master stroke on the canvas of GM Chris Grant's stunningly more palatable trade resume. While it would certainly lose some luster if Deng were to depart the Cavaliers with them getting nothing in return, landing an All Star talent in his prime, who just so happens to address the lion's share of your teams needs, for a relative pittance of the husk of Andrew Bynum, two second round picks, a heavily protected first round pick that is likely to become a second round pick, and the right to swap first round picks in 2015 is a wonderful move.

In a year where tanking is in vogue, and the talent in the draft is as good as it's been in a long time, Grant has instead sent a message to his team of mostly 23 and unders that this organization wants to be about winning basketball games, not lotto draws.

On the court, Deng fits seamlessly, pushing CJ Miles, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson down in the pecking order to spots that their age and talent lend more naturally to. Filling the obvious gaping void at small forward, Deng's talent's were broken down here by our own Sam Vecenie.

  • Deng's 17.4 PER is 1.4 points higher than the combined PER of Clark and Gee. Also, keep in mind that PER doesn't actually reflect Deng's full value as a two-way player.
  • Deng's .350 FTr is .070 higher than the combined rate of Clark and Gee, meaning he's getting to the line more often and creating more efficient scoring opportunities. This is the second highest free throw rate on the Cavs behind Tristan Thompson. He finishes at an 81.5% clip upon getting there.
  • His 19.4 AST% is now 3rd on the Cavaliers, behind Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack. Deng is always willing to make the extra pass in order to foster ball movement, something the Cavaliers have been lacking all season.
  • Clark and Gee have allowed 15.4 and 17.8 PERs to opposing SFs respectively this season, according to Their net PERs against opposing SFs are -7.3 and -11.9. Deng is only allowing a 12.8 PER against, and has a net PER of +4.9.
  • Deng is one of the most active players in the NBA both on offense and defense. His 2.6 miles traveled per game stat places him tied for third among all NBA wings. Even though the Cavs' effort levels have come into question in recent weeks, it is not something that should be a concern with Deng.
  • Deng has shot about 62% at the rim over the course of the past four seasons, including 66% this season, according to The Cavaliers as a team this season are shooting 50.67% at the rim, which is historically bad.
  • Off the court, and in the locker room especially, the fit of Deng is almost tailor made. The Cavs are young, mistake prone, somewhat selfish, and almost rudderless in the form of peer leadership. Deng is a shining example of the exact opposite of most of these traits.

    Leaned on as coach Tom Thibodeau's favorite player, and team leader, Deng is one of the few players in the NBA who has a reputation and level of respect that is almost beyond reproach. He has no shortage of work to do with the Cavs roster that is currently performing well below the sum of it's parts. All due respect to Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack, Deng has the kind of resume and accolades that demand the attentive ear of any young player he's talking to.

    He is one of the NBA's iron men, and while somewhat prone to injury, he plays on, and plays at a high level. He has been an All-Star twice, and commanded the locker room of a #1 seeded playoff team that featured the League MVP.

    Expecting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson to lead such a young roster through a rebuild and up the mountain on the other side was probably a little unrealistic. Both are finding their relative footing in the NBA, and don't need to extra responsibility that role entails just yet. For problem children Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters, Deng's work ethic and attitude set a strict example of what it takes to succeed in this league, and whether or not they choose to follow that example will be telling for their future with the Cavaliers. Speaking with the Cavs after their recent win against the 76ers, David Zavac got two quotes that really drive home how important Deng can be:

    Kyrie Irving was asked if Deng will be the type of player that can teach a young Cavs team to be more professional:

    Well, yeah I've been learning on the fly for three years. I'm only 21. Great locker room guy. Can take things not only from his game, but his work ethic off the court. We aren't expecting him to just come out and be vocal right away ... we want to give him some room to grow with us.

    I also talked to Anderson Varejao following the win over Philadelphia 76ers to see what he had to say about Deng:

    Luol Deng is a vet. Everybody respects him in this league. He works hard. Pretty sure he's going to help this team a lot.

    Even further off the court, General Manager Chris Grant scored a PR victory that will shore up the waning level of trust the Cavaliers fanbase has in him. Tanking was the right move, given how barren the roster was when Grant took over, but the Cavs were unfortunate enough to find themselves in drafts devoid of the kind of stars they landed in taking Kyrie Irving, Brad Daugherty, and LeBron James at #1 overall. Feeling the heat, and rightfully so, Grant rewarded weary fans who are tired of losing seasons with a move that provides the instant excitement that one expects when bringing in one of the best wing players in the game. Putting to rest the narrative that the Cavs would sit in a holding pattern, pinning their hopes on begging LeBron James to come back in the Summer of 2014. James joining the team is still an option, but it is now an option of mutual convenience, not one sided desperation.

    In the last few days, Chicago fans have really brought into focus just how special a person, and player Luol Deng is. The night of the trade, we received comments and tweets professing Bulls fans' appreciation of Deng, and their best wishes for his future. Here at SBNation, Ricky O'Donnell underscored just how beloved Deng was to his teammates. At Hardwood Paroxysm, Caleb Nordgren penned a great story on what Deng means to Bulls fans, and who he is. I would really suggest reading both of those, not just because they're really good, but because I want everyone else to feel like me: An admitted tanker who has been swept away in the positive vibes of Luol Deng.

    We haven't had a lot of great things to talk about in the last three years, but hopefully the 2AM hour of January 7th, 2014 was the beginning of something really special that can make this season one we talk about for a long time. Stepping outside the shadow of former players and media scrutiny to bring playoffs, and with them relevance, back to this great basketball fanbase.