Luol Deng showed a bit of rust in his return after missing five games with an Achilles injury, but it didn’t stop coach Tom Thibodeau from raving about how much it meant to the Chicago Bulls.
“I think it’s big,” Thibodeau told ESPNChicago.com. “You’re getting back to being at full strength. You have Jo [Joakim Noah] who’s in rhythm now. Carlos [Boozer] and Taj [Gibson] have done a very good job all season. Jimmy [Butler]’s starting to get his rhythm. I think Kirk [Hinrich] and D.J. [Augustin] are comfortable at the point. Mike Dunleavy’s been solid throughout so now we have some quality depth.”
The Bulls lost at home on New Year’s Eve to the rapidly improving Toronto Raptors, who have won three straight and five of their last six, 85-79. Chicago led until fading late.
Deng scored 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting and had four rebounds and a steal. Deng is Chicago’s leading scorer, averaging 19.4 points per game, but he’s only played in 21 of Chicago’s 30 games this season.
On/off court statistics can be flawed, but they can also be used to make a broader point regarding a player’s impact on a team.
For instance, in the 802 minutes Deng has been on the court, the Bulls hold their own against opponents, operating at a net of a plus-0.9 point per 100 possessions. In 658 minutes without Deng, it’s a different story, as Chicago’s opponents have outscored the Bulls by 6.5 points per 100 possessions.
That translates to a net of 7.4 points per 100 possessions more for the Bulls when Deng is playing as opposed to when he is not.
For a team such as the Bulls, who play at the league’s third-slowest pace at 93.38 possessions per game, that 7.4 points is important. Chicago averages only 91.3 points per game, so every basket on both ends matters.
Deng’s length on the wing is a particularly important factor for the Bulls defensively. Deng’s 97.1 defensive rating is the second-lowest on the club, bettered only by Taj Gibson, who has a rating of 94.2.
Deng is still heavily featured in trade rumors surrounding the Bulls, despite the fact that the team has publicly said it doesn’t want to deal him and despite multiple statements by Deng about his preference to stay in Chicago.
He will be a free agent at season’s end and is making $14.275 million this season. He has made the last two All-Star games and was a second-team All-Defensive pick in 2011-12.
But he’s also become sort of a high-mileage player, one who has led the league in minutes per game in each of the last two seasons (39.4 in 2011-12 and 38.7 in 2012-13). This year, his 38.4 minutes per game ranks third in the league, trailing only Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks and Houston’s James Harden.
The bottom line, of course, is that the Bulls are better with Deng than without him—a team tied with Milwaukee for the worst offensive rating in the NBA (96 points per 100 possessions) can benefit from having its leading scorer on the floor, after all—and the Bulls, despite being just 12-18, are in the thick of the playoff hunt, currently trailing eighth-place Boston by just a half-game.
Despite being ninth in the conference, Chicago’s point differential of minus-1.5 points per game is seventh in the East, a sign the Bulls are in more games than they are out of. Having Deng back can only help that situation, as well.