Pippen: Deng among elite small forwards and deserving of All-Star status
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In Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls have a perennial All-Star once again. But when the NBA announces the All-Star reserves on Thursday night, there is a teammate of Rose’s that is definitely deserving of joining him in Orlando.
There are a lot of compelling reasons why eighth-year forward Luol Deng should be an All-Star. But to me, aside from his outstanding individual play this season, it’s the team’s success. The Bulls are winning in large part because Lu has played at a very high level and been remarkably consistent. When the team is playing well, it usually means Lu, and Derrick, are playing well. That being said, Chicago’s success is not about any one individual. But it’s Deng and Rose’s leadership and their determination that have become the catalyst for the Bulls.
The starters have already been selected, with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony winning the fan vote and earning the start as forwards for the East. Now, it’s up to the head coaches across the league to determine who will be named as reserves. Naturally, the first thing a lot of people look at is statistics. When you compare Luol’s averages to the numbers that Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or other top forwards in the East have put up this season, they are fairly similar, so you have to dig a little deeper.
What makes Lu such a deserving candidate is what he’s done for his team this season. Again, that’s not only statistically, but it is the little things he does night in and night out. When you look at the Bulls, they have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 21-6 and they’re right there with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the best record in the league.
How valuable is Lu to his team’s success? The Bulls are 17-3 with Deng in the lineup and 4-3 without him. Granted, the three losses without him were against very formidable opponents in Indiana, Miami and Philadelphia, but it’s not hard to get a sense of what he means to this team in the big scheme of things. We all agree that Derrick Rose is as elite of a player as there is in the NBA, but he can’t do it alone, and there the Bulls likely would not have this kind of success without a supporting cast. Quite simply, you win as a team and Lu has demonstrated that he’s one of the key components of the Bulls’ success. He’s taken full advantage of the opportunity to shine and I hope that the league finds a way to reward him for all of his efforts.
Still, statistics do play a role in determining the reserves and that bodes well for Luol, who has solidified himself as Chicago’s second scoring option behind Rose. But he does so many other things. Most nights, he takes on the toughest task as far as defending the opponent’s best perimeter player. He’s got great size and length, and coupled with his footwork, that makes him an excellent defender. Because of those things, he can still be very effective on that end of the floor without being all over his man. Being a great individual defender contributes to the team’s defensive success. Lu’s teammates know his style and how he plays, so they can steer a guy to create an opportunity, plus, you can be realistic about what limitations you may have as a defensive player. Those elements all contribute to the overall defensive ability by the team, which, for the Bulls, has been among the best in the NBA once again.
Over his career, Lu has developed as a leader for this team. Between what he does on the basketball court and how he communicates, it helps keep the Bulls at the top of their game. Maintaining that level of play throughout the course of a season is a challenge. The same goes for the fact that the Bulls are so good defensively. While we have come to expect that, it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point and stay there. Yes, the players are driven to be the best, but it’s never given to you, not in this league. That’s where I give a lot of credit to Coach Thibodeau and his philosophy. But, obviously, it boils down to the players and how they are executing on the floor.
Speaking of Coach Thibodeau, he often calls Lu the “glue” of this team and I couldn’t agree more. He’s someone that does it all—he fills up the stat sheet with points, rebounds and also assists some games, and he’s good for a steal or two a game. You just know you won’t see many zeros in Lu’s stat line most nights. Then he is good with so many of the intangibles, those things that don’t appear in the box score, but coaches and teammates appreciate. It’s the little things, keeping your teammates on the same page, stepping up to take a charge, or making the right play at the end of a quarter. Those things might not show up on a stat sheet, but they do in the win column.
Lu is back now after missing seven games with a left wrist injury, and we saw that the Bulls, while still a very good team, are not the same team without him. They seemed to be a little bit imbalanced without him, which goes to show you that Lu is a guy who does a lot of things for this team and is a very valuable player.
I give him a lot of credit for playing through this injury, but I’ve always had a lot of respect for Lu. He came in as a lottery pick in 2004 and I think he’s always felt like he has something to prove. In his time with the Bulls, he’s done a tremendous job at that and worked very hard. He has improved each season and you can see he’ll continue to work to try and be the best. You have to respect that, knowing he’s now in his eighth season but he still has that same work ethic, the drive and the hunger.
I don’t think Lu worries about the accolades too much. Just like Derrick and everyone on this team, it’s about winning. But it still means something to a player and it’s a sense of achievement. Some players chase being an All-Star for years and never make it. It can be a huge obstacle that they never overcome. And in terms of the game itself, you still have to go out there and prove that you belong there with the best of the best. That’s something I have to think Lu wants to do. I’m sure he believes that he’s one of the best small forwards out there and becoming an All-Star would solidify that.
Luol is a very determined player. If you’re going to battle, he’s the kind of player you want in your corner. He’s never satisfied and he’s going to keep working. He won’t give up until he achieves his goals and I love that he’s set such high standards to achieve success at the highest level. That is what it takes to be successful in life—you have to strive to accomplish something that is almost out of the ordinary. Someone like Lu feels he can do just that though and when he does, he’ll be all the more deserving of it.
At this stage, between his individual success and the team’s success, there aren’t many guys you would rather have at small forward than Lu. Obviously there are some very talented players at the three in the NBA—LeBron, Carmelo and Durant, if you consider him a small forward—but Lu is up there with the best of them and a perfect fit with the Bulls. Hopefully when the announcement is made Thursday night, he’s also an NBA All-Star.