In a question-and-answer column in Sunday's Cleveland Plain Dealer, a reader wanted to know how new Cavaliers forward Luol Deng stacked up at his position.
"Where would you rank (Deng) among the top small forwards in the league today?'' a Cavs fan named Anthony asked beat writer Mary Schmitt Boyer.
The response made me pause as long as Deng might before one of his deliberate, thoughtful replies.
"I would probably put him fourth, behind LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George … and ahead of Rudy Gay,'' Schmitt Boyer wrote.
Hmmmm. Bet that's higher than most pundits or paying customers at the United Center would place Deng, but after quickly scanning NBA rosters, it's hard to argue with the writer's instant appreciation of Deng. Assuming she meant Kevin Durant deserved his own position group, including Deng among the elite at his position acknowledged talents we often took for granted during his time with the Bulls.
No giant downtown murals of Deng are planned, but based on Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's tweets and early opinions such as Schmitt Boyer's since the Jan. 7 trade, so far they like what they are witnesses to in Cleveland. Meanwhile, as Deng awkwardly plays his former team for the first time Wednesday night, it would be an exaggeration to say he has been missed terribly outside the Bulls organization.
Will it be hard watching Deng in a Cavs uniform fighting with Joakim Noah for a rebound, or just odd? My guess is most Chicago sports fans would choose the latter. It won't be like seeing Jim McMahon in a Packers jersey or Chris Chelios in a Red Wings sweater. It will be more unusual than unsettling, no matter what new team Deng represented.
Deng was a two-time All-Star whose 10,286 points in a Bulls uniform were more than anybody scored except Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love. One of the NBA's leading humanitarians as a proud South Sudanese refugee, Deng was an ideal basketball ambassador for The City That Works. He always was a high-effort, low-maintenance employee. For a guy whose minutes became a polarizing issue under coach Tom Thibodeau, Deng never watched the clock, especially when it came to honing his craft or helping the community.
For all that, Chicago liked Deng a lot. But our city stopped short of falling head-over-heels in love with him the way it has for other athletes who achieved, and stood for, less. We expressed admiration for how Deng developed from a moody, sensitive player into a poised, veteran leader — but hardly adulation.
Chicagoans understandably have been more wrapped up in the snowplow driver coming than Deng going since he was traded, but is anybody else struck by how easily everybody accepted the Bulls' most dependable player leaving town? Instantly, salary-cap experts from Deerfield to Downers Grove grasped why the Bulls needed to spare Deng to avoid the luxury tax. Overwhelmingly, tepid resistance to the deal — which the Bulls had to make to avoid letting Deng go without compensation — reflected how the city never fully embraced him despite his consistent approach.
Not that Deng was disrespected during his Bulls career as a steady, complementary player, but watching him receive the Derrick Rose treatment at the 2012 London Olympics was the first time I recall wondering if we understood back home how special this professional athlete in our midst was. I recall concluding no, regrettably, present company included.
The British press and locals from Brixton, where Deng's family immigrated to, made Deng feel like the superstar Chicago fans and media never anointed him to be. Tabloids lauded Deng as "Barack Obama's favourite athlete,'' and children followed the basketballer as if he played a magical flute.
They considered Deng more wondrous than workmanlike, overwhelming praise the Bulls forward never received on this side of the Atlantic. Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and executive vice president John Paxson provided Deng generational wealth with a $71 million contract, and Thibodeau helped make Deng an All-Star. But outside the Berto Center, Deng spent much of the past 10 years as one of Chicago's most unappreciated sports stars.
As NBA life goes on, the Bulls have done a nice job of making Deng feel unneeded too. Without Deng, surprisingly they have gone 6-2 and arrived in Cleveland as one of the league's hottest teams, thanks to Noah playing the best basketball of his career and Thibodeau shaping another point guard, D.J. Augustin, to his liking. The Cavs are 3-3 with Deng, whose 18.7-point average mirrors his best Bulls numbers.
Pressure will be on Gilbert to re-sign Deng as a free agent. The Lakers, among others, likely will show strong interest. Chances are, next summer, Deng will feel more valued than ever as a basketball player.
It's about time.