Humans crave comfortability, something they can rely on, things they can recognize. And like moving to a different position at a job, moving “up” or down a position in basketball can be uncomfortable. There’s a saying: change is always good. Whether it’s true or not, it has also proven fruitful for one the Miami Heat’s most versatile players.
Luol Deng, by trade, is a 6-foot-9 small-forward; a wing that has spent the lion share of his time guarding players that cut a similar figure. Which speaks to his last full season with the Chicago Bulls (2012-2013), where Deng manned the small-forward position a whopping 81 percent of the time, according to basketball-reference.com, only shifting to shooting-guard if necessary. And when Deng traveled South, in 2014, he saw similar positional splits in his first year in Miami (2014-2015). He held down his favored forward position 74 percent of the time, moving “up” to the power-forward spot in ancillary minutes.
Deng went from checking swingmen, like Trevor Ariza and James Harden, to sliding over and banging down-low with bruisers and low-post wizards, all while giving up size. Christian Bale-like versatility. You could call Deng “The Big Short.” Or, the short big…
Like everything else, The NBA is moving on, leaving a swath of “old-school” players in it’s efficient wake—and Deng is a respectable poster-child of what the NBA’s new breed of player looks like: An amorphous-positioned forward that can switch between defenders and shoot 3s (and if you’re the really unlucky: play center is dire minutes. Somewhere, Justise Winslow is crying.)
Players on the open market that can do what the modern NBA demands, like Deng can, will be going a rate that might seem crazy, even to Mikhail Prokhorov. Harrison Barnes (who’s much younger than Deng and has no Thibs-miles), often a Golden State punching bag, is going to be a max-player. Like, he’s going to get $20-plus million this Summer, if that paints a better picture for you. These multi-positional players are gold, right now.
And Deng, now being one of these coveted swingmen, is on the market; and, per NBA.com/Stats, he shoots 35 percent from the short corners (league average), plus, he can move his feet. If Miami doesn’t want to ante up the bankroll to keep him around, someone surely will. Don’t think Tom Thibodeau isn’t lurking.
One other thing that Deng possesses that is sometimes overlooked—and is rare in a field of millionaire hoopers: the ability to buy in. LeBron James is perhaps the most multi-positional, talented, alpha, commanding, player-GM-ing, sub-tweeting, dry-snitching player in the game of basketball; and even HE took some time acquiescing to his new role in the NBA, only recently sliding down to power-forward when his team needed it.
But Deng? The only change you saw was the major uptick in rebounds that his new hybrid-forward position brought. I bet the Houston Rockets wish they had more players like Deng, I bet every team wishes they had more players like Deng—players that thrive even in the most uncomfortable of situations—even in a humid, horrendous place like Florida. Not even LeBron could endure that for more than a couple of years.
This 2015-2016 regular season, Deng played a team-high 60 percent of the Heat’s available minutes; and in the playoffs, he—again—played a team-high 72 percent, per basketball-reference.com. For a player that doesn’t seem to be that high on the Heat’s keeper list, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent sure played a big role on a team that needs more players like him—in a league where there aren’t that many.