NEW YORK — The Bulls’ Luol Deng is one of the many NBA players currently on the shelf in this crazy, condensed season. Deng has missed the last seven games with a torn ligament in his left wrist.
With Thursday’s 105-102 win over the Knicks, the Bulls are now 4-3 without Deng. His team is surviving, but taking the floor without his glue guy has to be driving coach Tom Thibodeau crazy.
Thibodeau leans on Deng more than any other player. Derrick Rose was the MVP last season, but Deng played almost 200 more minutes than Rose did, because he was not only the team’s starting small forward, but also the anchor of its highly effective second unit.
Deng ranked third in the league in minutes last season, behind only Monta Ellis and LaMarcus Aldridge. Of the Bulls’ 15 lineups that played at least 75 minutes together, 14 included Deng.
Bulls fans cringed whenever Thibodeau kept Deng in the game despite a large Chicago lead in the fourth quarter, wondering if the coach would eventually wear Deng out. Deng played 193 fourth-quarter minutes last season when the Bulls were up by 11 or more points. The only regular starter who played more fourth-quarter minutes with his team up 11 or more was Dwyane Wade (195). Rose played 134.
Deng is clearly the Bulls’ second-best player and arguably as important as Rose. In these seven games without Deng, the Bulls have allowed 102 points per 100 possessions, after allowing just 93 in their first 18.
But while this stretch without him may be hurting Chicago in the standings and its quest to repeat as the No. 1 defense in the league, it could also help in the long run. The Bulls’ no-Deng lineups are getting more floor time together, and players deep down the bench are getting some needed exposure.
The lineup of Rose, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has held up pretty well (at least offensively) in 117 minutes together. And rookie Jimmy Butler played all but 10 seconds of the fourth quarter on Thursday, hitting a big shot with just over a minute to go.
Thibodeau says that Deng is “getting close” to being ready to play again. “He’s doing more and more each day,” the coach said before Thursday’s game. But Thibodeau wouldn’t entertain the notion that this stretch is allowing him to get more comfortable with having Deng on the bench.
“I’m comfortable with the minutes he plays,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a reason why he plays those minutes. I’m confident in our bench. We have a bench that’s more than capable. I think that if you studied the teams in the league over the years, there’s players that have averaged those minutes, and it’s fine. So that’s the way we’ll go.”
Yep, when Deng returns, his coach will go right back to leaning on him for big minutes.