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Cavaliers history has proved that the addition of a veteran can change the trajectory of an entire team.
When the Miracle of Richfield squad traded for center Nate Thurmond, it changed the mindset of Bill Fitch’s young, inexperienced group. Suddenly, they had a big, tough, seasoned big man protecting the rim and teaching Cleveland’s NBA neophytes how to win. For his contribution to the growth of franchise, Thurmond’s No. 42 is immortalized in the rafters at The Q.
In the early 80s, as the franchise was struggling to get back on its feet following the Ted Stepien fiasco, the Cavaliers made a deal to acquire high-scoring guard World B. Free from the Warriors. Free played parts of two seasons before his Cavs made a miracle of their own, overcoming a 2-19 start to reach the playoffs. To this day, many fans still credit Free with saving basketball in Cleveland.
Luol Deng, who was acquired from Chicago on Tuesday, won’t be expected to achieve arena immortality or save the sport in his new city. But there is a hope that the two-time All-Star will help the Wine and Gold turn around a season that’s gotten off to a slow start.
On Wednesday afternoon, Deng joined his new teammates for the first time, getting in the first of two practices before the Cavaliers head west for a five-game junket.
The media wasn’t privy to how Deng looked in practice, but the advanced billing about what an engaging, charismatic person he is was on full display.
“I’m just excited – it’s something new for me and I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” said Deng. “I want to work hard and I want to fit in as much as I can. I want to turn it around, I want to help the guys win games and just have a positive attitude towards everything.”
The 28-year-old Deng joins the Wine and Gold in the midst of one of his finest seasons – averaging a career-best 19.0 points per game in 23 starts for Chicago, where he spent the previous nine years.
“When (the trade) happened, I couldn’t believe it,” said the native of South Sudan. “It took a while to hit me, but it’s not like I’m done playing basketball. I’ve been traded from one great organization to another one. That book is closed and I’m really looking forward to starting brand new and to get going.”
So what was the most difficult part of being traded from Chicago? Saying goodbye to teammates? Arranging to have his belongings shipped? Having to learn a new city?
“It’s been awkward,” explained the two-time All-Star. “I had my family over for Christmas and New Year’s and my mom doesn’t really understand being traded. And to me, that was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do – explain to her that the organization that I’ve been with for nine years no longer wanted me. And she couldn’t understand why, so I had to explain to her. She was asking me: ‘Are you not playing well?’”
The Cavaliers, themselves, understood exactly what the trade meant. And many of them reached out to their new teammate when they heard the news.
“Most of the guys texted me when the trade happened,” laughed Deng. “I don’t know, normally, if (when) guys get traded, that’s what happens. It’s my first time.”
A nine-year veteran, Deng has always worn uniform No. 9 – a tribute to his mother, Martha, who had nine children. Of course, this season that digit has belonged to rookie guard Matthew Dellavedova.
“I knew I had to speak to (Dellavedova) at some point,” joked Deng. “And I think we stood in the locker room for a little while looking at each other. It was almost like we were about to break up. It was really hard, but he’s such a nice guy. He gave me the number and I’m going to have to pay him back for that; it was really nice of him to do that. I told him, if the number meant something really strong for him that I could wear something else.”
So when the Cavaliers take on the Jazz this Friday night in Salt Lake City, the team’s new starting forward will wear his usual No. 9 and Delly will wear No. 8.
This week, the Cavaliers exchanged a player who never really found terra firma with the Wine and Gold for a two-time All-Star who seems like he can’t wait to get started in Cleveland. And his presence might just turn this entire season around.
“Like I said, I’m not going to go out there and average 30,” concluded the newest Cavalier. “Each night, I’m just going into whatever game we have to play and just try to get the guys excited and play as hard as we can. And I think after a while it becomes a habit. And these guys already show how hard they play and how together they are as a team. It won’t be very hard at all.
“The way practice was today and the way guys are – the record really doesn’t speak for how good this team can be. And I think that’s the exciting part.”
For Cavaliers Nation and their new small forward, Friday can't come fast enough.
Listen as Coach Brown and Luol Deng discuss the veteran's first practice with the Cavs.