By nature, I am someone who tries to see the good in players. As someone who is constantly examining team building and roster construction I cannot ignore player weaknesses, but those truths must be mixed with what a player does well to paint a full picture. Then, the ultimate goal, is to build a roster which can simultaneously cover up as many of its players’ weaknesses while optimizing as many of their strengths. This is how you get a team that can produce at a level that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Thinking about this brings me to Luol Deng. We don’t need to re-legislate the past, but Deng is overpaid. That happened the second he signed his deal in July 2016. He makes roughly $18 million a year and did not produce on the court at a level approaching that this past season. Deng posted a PER of 10.1 and had an Offensive Real Plus Minus of -1.51 (which ranked 50th among all small forwards in the league). Not promising, especially in the first year of his contract.
These don’t paint a good picture for Deng and his future on the Lakers. However, the contract he signed last summer gives the Lakers limited options in terms of finding an adequate solution for all sides. I mean, realistically, they could do one of the following four things this summer/heading into next season:
- Waive him outright.
- Waive him using the stretch provision.
- Trade him.
- Bench him permanently/make him a fringe rotation player.
Actually, there’s a fifth option too. But we’ll get to that in a second. Of the four above, I’d argue none of those will actually happen this summer.
Waiving him requires the Lakers eat his entire salary and take enormous cap hits in the process. Using the stretch provision on him makes the cap hits more reasonable, but keeps Deng on the books for seven more seasons (years remaining on his contract, multiplied by two, plus one). Deng’s contract, as a standalone, is not tradable. The Lakers would need to include an asset with him, which they have too few of already. And, finally, it’s simply not viable to pay a player as much as Deng will make to not play/be a break-in-case-of-emergency player. Deng is a good locker room guy and a respected veteran, but even he would likely rebel against that for another full season (or longer).
So, where does that leave Deng? Well, let’s get back to the first paragraph above.
Ideally, the Lakers need to find a way to optimize Deng’s game while minimizing his weaknesses in order to help him be a productive player. And, if you ask Deng how that happens, it’s by playing him at PF rather than at SF where he spent most of this past season. From Mark Medina of the LA Daily News:
“In terms of my future,” Deng said, “I would like to play at the 4 more.”
And then, this:
“The style that we played, I had a hard time with it,” Deng said of Walton’s offense. “I’ve always kind of read the game and relied on my IQ. Not taking anything away from my skills or anything, but it’s very hard to adapt to a new system that fast.”
“The 3 is more of a spot-up position for a lot of teams. I think I struggle with that,” Deng said. “I have to find a way, and I think Luke agrees, to get back to moving and being involved in screens. I can always read screens, slip in or cut. That’s where I really perform best. I have a knack for rebounding. A lot of times at the 3, you have to get back to balance the floor.”
Deng played well at PF for the Heat before coming to the Lakers. Per 82games.com, Deng posted a PER of 17.8 as a PF his last season in Miami. He stretched the floor well and was able to unlock more of the aspects of his game he mentioned to Medina.
Some of the data from this past season helps back this up too. While his positional PER was not as good (11.6 as a PF this past season), the lineup data says that the Lakers performed better when Deng was on the floor next to Brandon Ingram than when he was playing SF in more traditional lineups next to two more traditional bigs.
Of the 20 most frequently used lineups Deng appeared in, 10 of them had a positive plus/minus. Of those 10 lineups, seven were where he played PF. Now, the sample size of these groups are small and it should be noted that the lineup with the largest sample — the starting lineup with Russell, Young, Randle, and Mozgov flanking Deng — came with Lu at SF. But, when you consider seven of the 10 positive lineups had him at PF and that eight of the 10 negative lineups had him at SF, we start to see a trend of which personnel groupings work best with Deng in the lineup and that he’s playing PF in most of those.
So, move Deng to PF full time next year, right? That’s the easy solution? Well, it’s not that easy.
While we all know the Lakers aren’t just going to bring back the same team next season, an analysis of where the roster stands now says that there are simply not a lot of PF minutes to go around. Julius Randle is the starting PF. Larry Nance Jr. is his back up. At some point in the coming couple of seasons, Brandon Ingram will also start to command at least short stretches at PF. Even if you remove Ingram from the equation, one has to imagine just splitting 48 minutes between Randle and Nance creates a crunch. Add Deng to that mix and a young player the team is investing in will get squeezed.
What would seemingly be a simple solution to this problem would be to play Randle or Nance at C more often to open up some minutes at PF. However, when that happens, the Lakers are then infringing on minutes at that spot. And, again, while the roster situation is fluid, as it stands now the Lakers have Mozgov, Tarik Black, and Ivica Zubac at that spot already. So, giving Randle/Nance minutes there cuts into those players’ minutes, creating a ripple effect which crunches the minutes of every front-court rotation player.
So, do you try optimize Deng at the expense of minutes for Randle, Nance, or Ingram at PF? Or do you do it at the expense of Zubac, Black, or Mozgov at C? Some of these problems may work themselves out simply because some of these guys may not even be on the team next year, but as of today, these are real considerations which need to be planned for.
Ultimately, the answers to these questions may come down to what is valued more and what helps the team the most. Maybe optimizing Deng and getting value from his contract matters more than further development for Zubac/Black or getting Mozgov minutes. Or, maybe Deng’s floor spacing and defensive ability at the PF spot actually help the team more than getting Nanc/Randle minutes at C in small lineups.
While this summer will offer multiple sub-plots — the lottery, the draft, free agency — that end up shaping how the next Laker team looks, the answers above will also matter. And, like Deng himself, I’m interested in seeing how it all plays out and what role he’s slotted into next season — if he’s on the team at all.