Luol Deng (and players like him) are getting paid to fit in

The current NBA is only asking players to do so much: shoot 3s and be a versatile defender, plus, some other junk. But what if a player can do more than that? It might lead to a disgruntled employee. This NBA era is pushing the limit of the "team-player" concept, and the players that can acquiesce to it are thriving.

This Summer’s free agency has been… exorbitant. I mean, we had a guy that played in China go from making less than a million per year to hauling in 24-plus million per year, thanks to the king’s ransom that is his new contract: four-years, $98 million. And I’m talking about Hassan Whiteside, snapchat savant, by the way. (Whiteside also announced he was staying in South Beach via snapchat; could the Heat pay him via snapcash? Would the app support $24-plus million?)

Everyone is getting paid, like, everyone. Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat guard, agreed to a four-year, $50 million olive branch from the Brooklyn Nets. Keep gettin’ them checks has never sounded better. Note: If you want all these contract numbers to make your sense in your head, just divide them by two and it seems to make planet-Earth-sense. Joakim Noah?! for $18 million a year?!—wait, divide by two; okay, $9 million—now I can breathe. There we go. 

But it’s not really the Whitesides or Bradley Beals contracts that are the astonishing (yes it is, but still), it’s the Kent Bazemores, the Noahs, the Evan Turners, the mid-tier guys that are shock-and-awe inducing. Even closer to home for Miami Heat fans, it’s the Luol Deng contract. Deng is going to be making $18 million a year with the Los Angeles Lakers on the back of his new $72 million deal. He’s 32 next April. 

Let’s single out Deng, and try and find out why he just garnered a four-year blood pact. Take a look at these two players’ 2015-2016: 

Guess which stat line is Deng’s.


Source: Jaelin Wilson (@BrothaJay)

Wrong (or right).

It’s Player B. And Player A, that’s Serge Ibaka. Both players spend the lion’s share of their time on the court at the four. They both shoot 3s, they both are expected to switch onto smaller defenders; they’ve morphed into one position: the hybrid forward. But only one of them is marginalized because of it—that player being Ibaka.

Ibaka wanted a bigger piece of the action in OKC; he expressed discontent with his diminished role on the team. But his ex-team [OKC] may have not been the problem. Ibaka not being able to stalk the painted area like he used to wasn’t a product of his team. It was the product of the league. When most teams shift into sixth gear, now, they go small, surrounding a big man/rim protector with shooting; this effectively killed the power-forward position, where Ibaka lives. Ibaka guards shooters now; a change in scenery, being traded to the Orlando Magic, won’t change that. 

Unless Ibaka slides over to center, he’s going to be guarding shooters, the ever popular stretch-four and hanging out on the perimeter on offense. Ibaka doesn’t post-up, he has no go-to move, and he can’t create his own shot—or a shot for his teammates—in isolation. Running an offense through him would be like trying to fit square peg in a round hole. Feed him the ball all you want, it won’t change anything. Ibaka didn’t like standing in the corner, spacing out his team’s offense—which helped them!—where he was the most effective (for his team). Most effective. Playing defense with verve, running the floor and doing your part on offense, even if it means waiting to get the ball for spot up 3s, are hard things to acquiesce to. Those are things Luol Deng has mastered and executed for a full season now with Miami. What is melancholy about Ibaka's situation is that he can do much more with his God-given talent, yet the league just doesn’t value it as much anymore. 

Deng does most of the things the modern NBA asks. He sits on the perimeter, cuts, plays defense and runs the floor. He fills a role. Ibaka’s talent is superior to Deng’s; he can do more things on the court than Deng can, affect the game more ways than Deng can (mostly). But it just so happens that this pace-and-space, 3-and-D NBA loves the things that Ibaka is good-not-great at, things that are hard for him to do—or accept. Though the ex-Oklahoman can do more, he’s being asked to do less; he’s being asked to play like, Deng, or Marvin Williams or Harrison Barnes, unfortunately for him. 

Deng, and players like him, are getting $18 million a year because they can do everything the NBA wants them to do, even if that’s all they can do, unlike Ibaka. Plastic role-players are selling like hot cakes, right now—not to light it up, but to fit into the NBA's new pace-and-space era. Being a malleable multifaceted team-player may figure out to be the ultimate skill. At least for now. An infamously petty LeBron James tweet might resonate now, more than ever:

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