Despite wrapping up a five-game home stand on Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans, the state of the Cavs hasn't exactly been brimming with positivity. They're still sitting at .500 in their last 10 games, but the team has dropped three of its last four, including Sunday night's gut-wrenching loss to a Phoenix Suns squad that won the third quarter 25-6.
Still, Deng has been everything that Cleveland could have possibly hoped for. He's imported quality leadership, two-way activity and, most importantly, wins for a young squad that was in dire need of all three things. That he's maintained the same kind of numbers alongside Irving and Co. that brought him two All-Star nods in the past two season is nothing short of amazing.
In fact, it should be more than enough to justify his third selection in as many years to the league's biggest yearly game. With that in mind, here's the three major factors that Deng has in his favor.
While the fans are responsible for voting in the usual superstar names in the game, it's the league's coaches that have the unsung task of filling up the bench, which is just perfect for Deng.
To repeat the obvious: NBA coaches love Luol Deng. His consummate professionalism and minute-by-minute effort are just a few of the reasons that, despite so-so seasons of late (at least by All-Star standards), the Man from Sudan has become a staple for the All-Star Game and winning in general.
In a game that is defined through three quarters by absolutely no defense and each player trying to top one another in a free-for-all frenzy, you can count on Deng to do everything that no one else will expect, like fundamentally sound play and clamping down defensively on the Kevin Durants and Blake Griffins of the world (or at least trying to).
Furthermore, he's one of the few underrated players in the league that accepts and embraces coaching, and in a process that demands input from the guys whose responsibility it is to manage a locker room full of egos, you can rest assured that Mike Brown and Tom Thibodeau at least will be screaming themselves hoarse backing Deng's All-Star credentials.
Like it or not, the NBA All-Star Game is as much about routine and process as anything else.
Sure, there's a few fresh faces each year that get inducted as one-time tokens of appreciation, but for the bulk of the roster, you'll see a host of old names and faces. It's something that both coaches and fans do.
Why do you think geezers like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki continue to curry favor year after year after year? Yes, they still produce at age-defying rates, but in the larger scheme of things, it's because they possess that perennial All-Star qualities that demand continual respect and admiration. The fan-based equivalent? Why, Kobe Bryant continues to collect nearly 1 million votes despite being injured and playing just six games.
But, not that that really matters. After all, when you know what you're going to get, and what you're going to get is inarguable greatness, why rock the boat?
Talent Pool in the East
The biggest reason that Deng could and should make the NBA's biggest annual exhibition game? Simple—he plays for the Eastern Conference.
This isn't a knock on Deng by any means, but let's be real. If this was the West we were talking about, there's a zero percent chance he'd sniff an All-Star bid this year, not with the load of frontcourt options out there—LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Duncan and Nowitzki, just to name a few.
In the East? Assuming the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh is a sure-fire pick, Deng's biggest competition for the East's other reserve forward spots would be the Atlanta Hawks' Paul Millsap, who's quietly assumed the bulk of the team's offense in lieu of teammate Al Horford's season-ending injury.
Millsap actually has a legitimate case to make the team over Deng. He's having a career year, averaging 17.7 points on 46.7 percent shooting (including a respectable 36.7 percent on three-pointers), 8.2 rebounds and an All-Star-level 20.37 PER. Toss in the fact that this would be his first selection, and the coaches might be swayed into giving the extra spot to him, even if Deng brings more to the table.
Should that happen, Deng still has as strong a case as anyone for one of the two wild-card spots alongside a roulette of surging young guards—think John Wall, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan or Lance Stephenson, assuming Dwyane Wade hasn't relinquished his starting spot due to health concerns.
And if that's the case, it would be a huge win for the Cavaliers and hopefully, the type of proud signifier that could spur a second-half comeback en route to that No. 8 spot.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Sunday, Jan. 27.
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