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Goodbye to a Gentleman Warrior

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

It was probably the right decision, given the circumstances, but man, does it feel terrible. As everyone reading a website like this one will know, the Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng this week to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tonight, Deng will make his debut in a Cleveland uniform. It will be decidedly strange to see him in another uniform after spending a decade cheering the man on in Chicago red and black. I’m really not sure how I’ll feel, but I’m betting it will feel jarringly sad. My initial reaction to Deng’s salary being dumped for Andrew Bynum‘s very cap friendly contract and assorted picks of varying, but ultimately limited value, was surprise and a slight tinge of joy that the Bulls at least got something in return for Deng, rather than letting him leave in free agency for nothing at all, much as they had done with much loved backup center, Omer Asik.

Whatever joy I felt quickly melted to sadness the more I thought about Deng no longer being a Bull, and the unsettling realization dawned on me that whatever success the Bulls enjoy over the next few years, the great Luol Deng will not be a part of it.  Before you cry out against that last bit of that last sentence, allow me to reiterate, Luol Deng is absolutely great. Luol Deng, the wholly considered man, is an absolute giant of greatness. He’s one of the very best two-way players in the NBA, but more important than that, he is one of the great humanitarians in all of sport. He’s perhaps the greatest “gentleman,” to borrow the wholly appropriate word used by former Bulls General Manager and current head of Basketball Operations, John Paxson to describe Deng, in all the NBA.

To this Bulls fan, though, Luol Deng has been defined by two things on a basketball court: (1) toughness and (2) winning. Deng has become the league’s Iron Man, especially since head coach Tom Thibodeau arrived on the scene and made Deng his workhorse, as the Bulls took flight toward contending status, before injuries quickly blew it all to hell. Over the years, Deng gritted his way through a laundry list of injuries and just kept marching forward once more unto the breach. In the decade since Deng became a Bull, from just after I graduated from high school to now when I’m nearly pushing 30, the Bulls have done nothing but win. Chicago has missed the playoffs just once over the 9 full seasons Deng has worn the uniform.

deng wowy

Data from NBA.com/Stats

In Deng’s time as a Bull, Chicago was 275-58 (.573) in games in which Deng played and just 58-59 (.496) in those he was unavailable. With Deng, the Bulls won roughly 8% more often than without him. Over the course of an 82 game season, that’s roughly the difference between a 41 win team and a 47 win team, though that almost certainly understates his impact. It’s just another data point, alongside his above average PER and WinShares and his stellar plus minus contributions, which shows that Deng has mattered a great deal for the Bulls success over the last decade. He, perhaps more than any other Bull, was responsible for helping to drag Chicago out of its post-dynastic funk.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that this years Bulls will likely sink into the lottery in his absence.  I will miss watching him on a regular basis and I will miss rooting for him. Part of me will probably always root for him, no matter the color of his jersey. Luol Deng’s that kind of guy: one worth cheering.

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