The Deng/Hughes Conundrum


Nov 29

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sunday’s Bulls game with the Philadelphia 76ers will be intriguing for the team’s direction and to perhaps get a significant read on coach Vinny Del Negro. And it has nothing to do with whether the Bulls can finish the long road trip with a competitive 3-4 record.

It’s a matchup of 7-9 teams, only one a major disappointment, that being the 76ers after the free agency acquisition of Elton Brand. The Bulls at 7-9 have to be feeling reasonably good about themselves given they are coming off perhaps their toughest road stretch of the season.

No, the issue for the Bulls now is what Del Negro will do about Luol Deng and Larry Hughes and his playing rotation.

Deng has returned from a groin injury and came off the bench the last two games with little effect, totaling 12 points on five of 12 shooting. Hughes had that huge game winner in Salt Lake City Monday, and has been playing small forward with Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon pretty much locked into the starting backcourt.

The Bulls have had some success with their smaller lineup, causing matchup issues with some teams and, in effect, taking advantage of what they do best, which is score.

But it would seem Deng needs to be back in the starting lineup for a lot of reasons. And Del Negro indicated Saturday he’d go back to Deng starting with Hughes taking the move back to the bench well, those around the team said.

Del Negro conceded as the Western portion of the trip ended with a loss in San Antonio, he hadn’t done a good job of working Deng back yet.

“Part of the trip was trying to get Deng back in the rotation, so we’re just behind the eight-ball with it there,” Del Negro said. “I need to do a better job to get him more involved, early in the games especially, so hopefully his health will be good the next couple of days. I had to play (Deng) at both the three and four-positions (against the Spurs). I have to a better job to get him involved.”

That’s, in part, because Deng just signed a long term deal with the team and is the team’s third highest paid player this season. The first: Hughes. Though it would seem Hughes hardly is in the Bulls future, turning 30 in January.

But there’s another issue, which shouldn’t be an issue, but often is in the NBA.

Hughes complains when he doesn’t play. Publicly.

Coaches become uncomfortable with that, especially rookie coaches, and Del Negro is known as a player friendly type person and coach who pushes for harmony.

Hughes always insists his complaints about playing time aren’t selfish. He insists they are in the best interests of the team because he is better when he plays 35 to 40 minutes, and if he is better, the team is better.

Overall, Hughes is averaging 11.8 points, three rebounds and 1.1 assists and shooting 40.2 percent.

This season he is averaging 14.2 points and shooting 43 percent as a starter while averaging 7.7 points and shooting 33 percent coming off the bench. He shoots 45 percent when the Bulls win and 35 percent when they lose. He averages 14.8 per game when the Bulls win and 8.8 when they lose. Hughes is eight for 12 on threes in Bulls wins and one for 15 on threes in Bulls losses.

Of course, that can be seen this way: Perhaps Hughes affects winning and losing too much by his moods when it comes to playing and his shooting, especially when he is awry.

He insists otherwise, that the team benefits when he is on the court sooner and longer. And coaches do say while individually he cannot defend as he once did, his team defense is solid.

But that situation seems untenable for the team’s future.

Deng is having his poorest season since he was a rookie, though he’s had back and groin issues. One element in Deng’s game that seemed to project success was that he was improving every season, the sign of a player with a bright future. Deng slid some last season, but it was a dysfunctional season for everyone, and he’s the kind of player who benefits from what other players do.

Deng is averaging 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists this season and shooting a career low 39.5 percent.

There are many informal theories about this. They include putting too much pressure on himself after signing the team’s largest long term contract. Which also goes along with feeling a responsibility to be “the man” and taking on too much while he’s not that kind of player.

There’s the theory he’s having trouble adjusting to rookie point guard Derrick Rose, both with the attention and offense geared toward Rose and finding how to play off him since Deng isn’t a spot up shooter. There’s the physical questions from the injuries to lack of off season work since Deng has an upright body and needs a lot of stretching to remain flexible enough to be effective. And playing in the summer for England instead of working on his game.

No matter what it is, or just a slow start exacerbated by injuries, Deng needs to get back in the starting lineup, and he needs to get major minutes.

Deng is averaging 14.4 points as a starter versus six points as a reserve.

That is the Hughes issue that will bear watching.

The Bulls cannot afford to allow players who are not in their future devour minutes of players who are and players whom the Bulls need to make decisions about.

The latter category would fit Thabo Sefolosha. He is the player being squeezed the most with Hughes. And that’s with Kirk Hinrich out.

The notion has been Sefolosha hasn’t performed. Actually, Sefolosha has perhaps as good or better case as Hughes to play. He just keeps quiet and allows the coach to make the decision.

Don’t we all hate in our jobs that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that the person complaining the loudest and most often gets taken care of?

Sefolosha is averaging 4.3 points and 1.4 assists, but he is averaging just 13.9 minutes per game, which is even below his career average. He’s averaged just 10.8 minutes in the six games on this trip. He’s had his chance? It doesn’t appear so.

Sefolosha has played more than 20 minutes in a game just twice this season, and in both games he’s shot five of nine from the field and is averaging 12.5 points in those two games. When he plays 20 minutes or fewer, he averages 3.5 points on 40 percent shooting.

So perhaps he can make the same case: If I play more, I’ll help the team. But he doesn’t. He never complains.

Therein lies the fine line in building a team and producing a winner. Players not only have to accept roles, but perform in those roles when given a chance.

The Bulls seem to be playing a risky game with Hughes. If they allow him to continue playing big minutes under the threat of dissatisfaction, are they sending a message to the rest of the players that being upset and talking publicly about it will get you what you want?

But do they want to risk alienating a player like Hughes, who could prove disruptive on a young team. And, as Hughes notes, when he is playing regularly and consistently, he can make a difference, and he has in some games. And he is a tested veteran who’s been in more playoff games than everyone but Lindsey Hunter. Don’t they need that kind of player on the court with the young Rose?

Still, it doesn’t seem the Bulls can afford to allow Deng to sit much longer unless Deng is injured worse than we know. He needs to play and begin playing better with Rose because given Deng’s contract and vote of confidence in him by the team, I cannot see him going anywhere.

I guess that’s why the NBA coaches make the big bucks. Darned if you do and darned if you don’t. Good luck, Vinny. We’ll be watching with great curiosity.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

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