In our “What’s Next” series, a Right Down Euclid writer will look at each individual member of the Cleveland Cavaliers by analyzing what their future looks like and/or what’s the next step in their development. In this piece, Zak Kolesar looks at Cavaliers small forward Luol Deng, who is set to become a free agent this summer.
The Cleveland Cavaliers search for a candidate to fill the hole at small forward that LeBron James left gaping after he darted off to South Beach in the summer of 2010 still remains empty. The Cavs first dabbled with trade asset Omri Casspi to start the following season, but that project came undone at the hinges. Alonzo Gee, a semi-budding bench player signed as an undrafted free agent, soon found himself thrust into the starting three spot by then head coach Byron Scott. After two-and-a-half failure-ridden seasons with Gee and the firing of Scott, Cleveland turned to another group of players this past season.
The first of the trial starting small forwards came in the form of offseason acquisition Earl Clark. The former Los Angeles Laker forward found himself in Philadelphia via trade before the end of the season and for good reason. Clark only managed to start in 17 of the 45 games he appeared in for the Cavs, averaging 5.2 points and shooting 37.5 percent from the field. After former head coach Mike Brown played around with Gee some more in the starting lineup, former general manager Chris Grant made a move for Luol Deng, the longtime glue guy for the Chicago Bulls.
Standing at 12-23, Cleveland pulled the trigger on Deng, hoping that his veteran presence would prove valuable to the young stars around him. By bringing Deng in the Cavaliers wanted to a.) Find a seasoned player to start at the three, b.) Ignite a final push to the playoffs and c.) Bring in a valuable perimeter shooter as an asset. Looking at Deng’s résumé and his continued success with the Bulls this season, Grant foresaw all three of the above checkmarks being met by Deng. With Deng averaging 18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists and shooting 49.0 percent from the field, Grant had almost all of the evidence needed to bring in the 10-year vet.
The one problem was his 3-point shooting, something that was needed in Cleveland from at a position calling for an efficient perimeter shooting SF. But Deng’s struggles with his 3-point shooting in his 23 games with the Bulls this past season should have been a red flag for Grant. His 27.4 percent 3-point shooting mark was his worst since his third season in the NBA. Although Deng did improve on his 3-point shooting once he joined on with the Cavs, his 32.5 percent mark (through 14 games) wasn’t enough to save Grant’s job, as he was fired on Feb. 8. Deng ended the season for the Cavs with a 31.5 percent mark from deep, nowhere near the team’s expectations.
Once Deng was brought into Cleveland, most saw him as the basketball equivalent of a five-tool player. That being said, his defensive presence was invisible for the most part despite the team improving on total rebounds per game. Over the final three-and-a-half months of the season, the Cavs placed seventh in rebounds per game in January (45.3), second in February (46.6) and eighth in March (44.1). The upward trend in Cleveland’s rebounding numbers can be traced to the Spencer Hawes pickup (which occurred in mid-February), as Deng averaged a career low 5.1 rebounds with the Cavs. Before Hawes came on board, the Cavs went a below average 7-10 since they signed Deng.
The Cavaliers have the opportunity to at least attempt to re-sign Deng this offseason, but it’s very unlikely that it will happen. Other Cleveland free agents like C.J. Miles and Spencer Hawes have more to bring for the Cavs in regards to leaving the rebuilding stage behind this upcoming season. Deng, who will be entering his 11th season, has passed his prime and is trending downward as far as production and usefulness go. His offensive rating stands at an average 106, while his usage percentage dipped to 20.6 percent with the Cavs, his lowest since his first All-Star season. Deng was also at his best over the past three-plus seasons when dishing out five-plus assists, as the team went 59-16 when he did so.
We likely won’t see prime Deng ever again, so offering him a longer, costly deal is pretty much out of the question. Cleveland will have to choose between signing one, and maybe two, of their free agents, and currently Deng sits at No. 3 on that list. And this assumes he has any interest in coming back into the fold. And so the search for a starting small forward still lingers on.