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Lakers Sign Luol Deng: Good Move?

Via AllinOne Sports

After being rebuffed by many of the top-tier free agents on the market this offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers once again turned to the second and third tier of players with the signing of Luol Deng on a 4 year, $72 million contract. Over the course of his career, Deng has been well known for his stifling defense and under-appreciated effectiveness on the offensive end. Although he is now getting older at 31, Deng is a solid wing player that has shown a newfound ability to play as a stretch four at a very high level. Deng is a solid signing for the Lakers in that he will bring a much-needed veteran presence to the Lakers’ young core as well as a strong reputation as a very good NBA player.

After entering the league in 2004 as the 7th overall pick out of Duke, Deng has recorded a career stat line of 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and one steal per game on 45.8% shooting, including a 33.4% mark from three. This past season with the Miami Heat, Deng averaged 12.3 points, 6 rebounds, and one steal per game on 45.5% shooting overall and 34.4% from behind the arc. Deng is not, and never has been, a team’s number one scoring option and that will not change in LA. This past season, Deng’s usage rate dropped to a career-low 17.4%. Throughout his career, Deng has been in the low 20s in usage, similar to Julius Randle’s usage rate on the offensive end in 2015-16. Coming to L.A. with a number of high usage, young stars in Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, and the aforementioned Randle, Deng will likely drop to the third or fourth scoring option. This will be optimal for Deng as he will not be tasked with having to be a focal point on the offensive end. Despite his sub-40% accuracy from deep, Deng is a good long distance shooter that can be potent over stretches as his performance in the playoffs this season with Miami showed as Deng put up a 42.1% mark from three in 14 games. When operating as a stretch four or even as the team’s center in ultra-small ball lineups, Deng is very effective in the pick and roll where he can drag larger defenders out to the perimeter. This allows the offense to expose a big man’s lack of mobility defensively, opening up the lane for drives and spot up shooters for wide open three point attempts. In Luke Walton’s Warriors-esque offense, this is a role where Deng can excel. Not only can the former first round pick help open up the defense for his teammates, but he will also be able to knock down the open jump shot. If utilized correctly, Deng’s skillset can affect the game in multiple ways on the offensive end.

Deng’s defensive prowess and versatility will be perhaps his greatest asset to the purple and gold. Deng has been known throughout his career as a fantastic defender. The Sudanese forward earned All-NBA defensive second team honors for the 2011-2012 season and he has been among the top 10 in defensive win shares twice in his career. Although his defending on the wing was beginning to decline over the past couple seasons as a result of his aging legs thanks to playing heavy minutes every season, Deng had a big resurgence over the second half of 2015-16 and in the playoffs as a stretch four. Tasked with having to replace the injured Chris Bosh as the Heat’s starting power forward, Deng was no longer forced to defend quicker small forwards that often exposed his diminishing agility. Instead, Deng was able to use his strength and defensive intelligence to neutralize bigger defenders. At 6’9” with a wingspan over 7 feet, Deng is plenty long enough to defend low post players. Despite the Lakers already having Julius Randle on the roster as the team’s starting PF, Deng will most likely be playing the four on most occasions. How this affects Randle I will discuss later, but this positioning will help get the best out of Deng as his body continues to slow down into its mid-30s. In the playoffs where Deng was exclusively a power forward, he recorded 0.8 defensive win shares: almost a 5 win pace which would place him among the NBA’s elite defenders. Plus, Deng put up 2.8 defensive win shares during the regular season, a mark that was his highest since the 2012-13 season. Considering that Deng only played his new position for about 30 games in that stretch, his defensive effectiveness at power forward is very clear. Deng may not be one of the best defenders in the NBA anymore, but he is still a very good defender that is well above average particularly when guarding opposing bigs. Now that he is joining one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, Deng’s prowess on the defensive end will be a massive boost in not only helping to improve the team’s defensive performances on the court, but he will also be able to mentor the Lakers’ younger players on the finer aspects of defending. For a young player like Julius Randle who has really struggled defensively, Deng’s knowledge and experience could be invaluable towards his development.

Giving an aging 31 year old with over 30,000 minutes on his legs a 4 year/$72 million contract is obviously risky. Deng will be getting paid the highest yearly salary of his career over his age 31-34 seasons. Coming off one of the worst full seasons of his career, many people would deem this to be a big overpay on the part of the Lakers. Deng is no longer one of the best second-tier stars in the league at the small forward position. Huge minutes and a relatively large injury history have begun to take their toll on his effectiveness. However, Deng’s new position nullifies the defensive concerns as the numbers clearly show just how effective the Sudanese player is when no longer having to chase smaller players around the perimeter. Therefore, the biggest concern for this deal is Deng’s injury history. In only seven years of his twelve-year career has Deng completed over 70 games. He has racked up a number of small injuries that have sidelined him over various stretches, and at 31 years old, it is highly unlikely that this trend will permanently cease. However, Deng has played 72 and 74 games in the past two seasons and now that he spends most of his minutes at PF rather than SF, the toll on his legs will be much less than in years past. In the end, Deng’s durability in his early 30s will be the biggest question hanging over his new contract. He is now the Lakers’ highest paid player at $18 million per year, and it will be important that he continues to show the durability he had in Miami.

On a Lakers team that was seriously lacking a veteran presence, signing Deng is a big step towards filling this gap. Deng should have a big concrete impact on the team both on the court and in the locker room. Deng has played on numerous contending teams over his stellar career, and these experiences will allow him to provide invaluable advice to the Lakers’ young core of players that are striving to get to where Deng is now. On the court, Deng’s offensive versatility and defensive prowess should improve the team on both ends of the floor. How Deng’s new position affects Randle is unclear, but a possible solution can be found from looking at how Draymond Green is used for the Warriors. Randle has the potential to be a very similar player to Green, and now with Deng in the fold, Lakers fans should come to expect a lot of small ball lineups with Deng at the four and Randle at center. Plus, Deng can also slide over and play the three to spell Brandon Ingram, allowing Randle to slide back to his natural power forward position alongside new signing Timofey Mozgov at the five. It is this positional versatility that will be one of Deng’s most endearing traits to Head Coach Luke Walton as it will allow the Lakers to interchange some of their dynamic players between positions, thus opening up mismatches and creating positional headaches for defenses. Detractors will claim that Deng got too long a contract and too much money, but in the current market the deal is definitely reasonable. If Walton can use Deng’s strengths to their maximum potential and Deng can find a way to avoid the injury bug, his signing will be a success for the purple and gold.

 

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