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Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN first reported the two sides were finalizing an agreement. Wojnarowski later reported head coach Tom Thibodeau “has made no promises to Deng on playing time and role, but has offered the chance to earn minutes.”
Deng spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
At the time, his four-year, $72 million deal with Los Angeles was puzzling. The Lakers were in their first year of a post-Kobe Bryant rebuild, so making that kind of investment in Deng didn’t make a lot of sense.
Deng averaged 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds as the Lakers won 26 games in 2016-17. Then he played just 13 total minutes over the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign.
Los Angeles bought Deng out of the remainder of his contract on Sept. 1 in order to give both sides a clean break. The Lakers benefited because they now have $38 million available for free agency in 2019, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. Deng, meanwhile, received the opportunity to join a team where he could be a more regular rotation player.
Because he played so little a season ago, it’s tough to gauge how valuable Deng can be for the Timberwolves.
Looking back at 2016-17, he connected on a career-low 38.7 percent of his field goals, and his 108.4 defensive rating was a career worst as well—excluding 2017-18—according to NBA.com.
Part of his struggles could simply be down to playing for a bad team with no playoff aspirations.
According to ESPN.com, Deng was 159th in real plus-minus (minus-0.33) two years ago. That number wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad enough to lump him in with the league’s worst players, either. He also held opponents to 32.2 percent shooting on three-pointers and 35.5 percent on attempts from greater than 15 feet, per NBA.com.
Deng turned 33 in April, so Minnesota isn’t expecting to get the player who made back-to-back All-Star Games in 2012 and 2013. If he can be slightly better than his 2016-17 self—not an unreasonable expectation—then this move will be worth it for the Timberwolves.
One could even try to put a positive spin on him basically missing all of 2017-18. Through his first 15 seasons, Deng logged 30,536 minutes on the court, which was seventh-most during that span, per Basketball Reference. Physically, he should feel better heading into 2018-19 than he has in a long time.
Having said all of that, the Timberwolves were a landing spot that would catch the most flak for signing Deng, and the criticism isn’t necessarily misplaced.
Thibodeau continues to lean on aging veterans who were key players during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls.
Signing Taj Gibson has worked out pretty well, but then Thibodeau reunited with Derrick Rose when the team already had a capable backup point guard in Tyus Jones. Now, Deng’s arrival is likely to push second-round pick Keita Bates-Diop further down the pecking order before he’s had the chance to prove himself.
When Thibodeau joined the franchise in April 2016, the Timberwolves were a team on the rise, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins leading the way. The air has steadily come out of the balloon since then, even after Minnesota’s trip to the playoffs last season.
Beyond the team’s questionable roster moves—Jimmy Butler trade aside—there are other problems looming on the horizon. Wiggins hasn’t shown much improvement, and Butler’s agent didn’t exactly deny a report by the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Joe Cowley of Butler’s frustration regarding the “nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates—specifically Karl-Anthony Towns.”
Deng may wind up becoming a valuable addition for the Timberwolves. For now, this signing will do little to ease the anxiety fans are feeling heading into 2018-19.