CHICAGO -- Some fans thought Luol Deng was soft because of all the games he missed due to injury when I first moved to Chicago in the spring of 2009.
They thought he wasn't playing through pain. They thought he wasn't mentally tough. They thought he wasn't as good as he was supposed to be. They thought he wasn't living up to his contract. Indeed, back nearly five years ago now, some fans here were hoping Deng would never play another game in a Chicago Bulls uniform.
The next season didn't change people's perceptions that much. Deng didn't seem to enjoy playing for second-year head coach Vinny Del Negro. He was limited in the offense, spending most of his time parked in the corner, waiting for a 3-point shot that he wasn't very comfortable taking anyhow. The Bulls got bounced in five games by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs and Deng looked like a player that didn't have much more growth in his game.
That's when Tom Thibodeau stepped in and changed Deng's career forever.
From the moment Thibodeau was hired by the Bulls, he sung Deng's praises. He said Deng was underrated and would be a weapon for his team because of the way he played on both ends. For a young player who was searching for a confidence boost, Thibodeau's words couldn't have come at a better time. Deng flourished in Thibodeau's schemes, becoming the player Bulls executive vice president John Paxson envisioned when he drafted him.
Deng loved the fact that Thibodeau trusted him to play hard on both ends of the floor, and Thibodeau loved the fact that Deng was willing to embrace playing 40-plus minutes a night. The more Deng produced, the more the relationship between the two men blossomed. Thibodeau repeatedly called Deng "the glue" of the team and always looked for ways to get him more attention. Deng's numbers didn't change that much, but the perception around him did.
Fans began to embrace the Duke product again because of the way he performed under Thibodeau. Instead of being viewed as soft and weak, Deng played through numerous injuries and was actually lauded as being tough and playing through pain. It's a transformation that few athletes are able to accomplish -- a second chance that doesn't come around too often.
Deng put in an inordinate amount of time trying to hone his game and get his body in shape to play heavy minutes. As time wore on, it became clearer that Thibodeau trusted Deng more than any other player on his roster. The veteran coach loved that he knew what he was getting from Deng each and every night. Deng just loved the fact that he had a coach that he trusted.
It was a match made in basketball heaven and a divorce that both men will no doubt have a hard time adjusting to over the coming weeks after Deng begins the next phase of his career in Cleveland.
Deng and Thibodeau came along at the right time in each other's professional careers. Deng needed to find a coach that could use all of his skills to the fullest extent, while Thibodeau needed to find a player that would embody all of his values and carry out his game plans night after night.