Luol Deng Signing a Smart Gamble for Miami Heat in 2014 Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

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Let's get one thing straight: Pat Riley is overselling the significance of the Miami Heat inking Luol Deng to a two-year deal.

Deng is a heck of a talent—underrated throughout his career and possibly a victim of being pegged more as a great teammate than, simply, a great player. But let's not take Riley's hyperbole and make it gospel.

Truthfully, Deng's deal, valued at $20 million over two years, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, is a shrewd, mildly risky move for the Heat.

A world-alterer it ain't.

His Own Man

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Maybe it's best to start with what what Deng won't be for the Heat, just as a way to temper some of the wild enthusiasm Riley's comments may have inspired.

Deng will not be LeBron James. We know that because we all have eyes, and those eyes have watched NBA basketball over the past decade or so. Deng, good as he is, won't be the league's greatest player. I think we can pretty comfortably say that.

Of course, we also know that because Deng's agent, Ron Shade, said as much to CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam in a post he wrote for "They’ve seen Lu at his best moments and his worst moments, and I think they understand that while Lu isn’t going to fill in for LeBron, Lu can step in and replace some of the things that LeBron did. They’re not looking for Lu to be LeBron."

Deng is best as part of a team, not as an entire team unto himself. Miami seems to know that, which is probably a good thing.

Working alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—both of whom will be expected to up their production in the wake of James' exit—should suit Deng just fine. He's a "do the little things" guy, and we saw him fill in the gaps with timely shooting and staunch defense in his nine-plus years with the Chicago Bulls.

Deng has twice been an All-Star, and in at least one sense, he'll actually give Miami more than James did last year. For all his hoops supremacy, LeBron largely took a hiatus from defense in 2013-14. For every area of the game that Deng falls short of the four-time MVP he's replacing (and there are many), consistent effort on D isn't one of them.

The Long and Short of It

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Financially, Deng's two-year deal is Heat-friendly. It won't tie up any long-term cash, and it looks remarkably affordable considering Deng turned down a three-year contract with the same annual salary from the Bulls last January, per Wojnarowski.

Though it seems a bit strange for Deng to sign for less overall money than he was offered by Chicago, it's really just the continuation of this offseason's biggest trend. Now, more than ever, players want flexibility. Deng will be totally untethered when the salary cap increases in conjunction with the NBA's new television deal after the 2015-16 season.

Short term, this is a good move by both Deng and the Heat—assuming nothing goes horribly wrong from a health perspective for Deng over the next two years.

If Miami is interested in retaining Deng over the long haul, it'll get a good look at him this season. And, just for some perspective on his potential staying power, it's interesting to note that Deng is actually younger than James and has played 13,826 fewer minutes in his career—the rough equivalent of 345 40-minute games.

That's significant.

Of course, Deng has the disadvantage of not being made up of equal parts bionic stardust, dreams and fast-twitch muscle fiber. James has him beat there.

At any rate, it's hard to quibble with Miami's decision to sign Deng, especially in the near term.

But there's still some risk involved, even though the Heat won't be on the hook beyond the 2015-16 season.

Deng has suffered numerous injuries throughout his career and has missed 127 games in 10 seasons. Put another way, injuries have cost Deng about one game for every five he's played. He's not necessarily brittle, but that's a large chunk of lost time.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 10: Luol Deng #9 of the Chicago Bulls leaves the court with an injury during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 10, 2
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

And players don't tend to get healthier as they age.

While it's probably not wise to assume his poor performance after being traded to Cleveland last year (when he registered the worst numbers of his career across the board) indicates Deng is in for some kind of massive decline, some slippage might be coming.

Given Deng's age and history, it's probably fair to assume he's approaching the downslope of his career arc. That could be one of the reasons he didn't draw the kinds of offers he was hoping for this summer.

If he were to miss significant time because of injury in the first year of his deal, or if he simply doesn't perform like the borderline All-Star the Heat expect, Deng will have the power to tie up Miami's money in the second season of his deal via a player option.

Though $10 million might not seem like much, Deng could put a serious cramp in Miami's rebuilding efforts by opting in after a bad 2014-15 season.

We've learned this summer that free agency is a game of inches or, in this case, pennies. Teams across the league bent over backward to clear space with small deals, sometimes making roster moves designed to free up tiny slivers of space to facilitate a max-level signing. The Rockets dumped Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for next to nothing because they wanted to open up cap room.

That didn't go so well.

Calculated Risk

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 23:  Luol Deng #9 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Washington Wizards at The Quicken Loans Arena on February 23, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The hope from Miami's perspective is probably that Deng plays well as a stopgap this year, opts out and signs with another team on a long-term deal. Realistically, he's not the guy the Heat envision as being a significant part of their future.

Despite what Riley says, the Heat are dreaming bigger. It's what they do.

And the 2015 free-agent class includes names like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Kawhi Leonard, Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo. Those are the guys Miami wants.

So while Deng is a terrific player who'll likely help the Heat satisfy their short-term needs, the potential for him to either get hurt or decline significantly represents a real danger for Miami's future. On balance, though, those are relatively minor concerns.

Riley got a little too amped up in his assessment of the Deng deal. But aside from some minor risk built in, the Heat gambled wisely on their new small forward.


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