Luol Deng has decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers, according to a report that broke inconsiderately early on Saturday morning. Deng’s deal is for four years and a total of $72 million, matching the trend of eye-popping big money contracts that have been given out this summer. This is the third signing for the Lakers this summer, with Timofey Mozgov and Jordan Clarkson also coming to agreements shortly after the start of free agency.
On the surface, the Deng deal, like Mozgov’s, appears to be for a year (maybe two) too long. At 31 years old, Deng is on the tail end of his career, making it more probable that he won’t produce at a level commensurate to his salary at the end of his contract. However, since deals can’t be officially inked until July 7th, we don’t yet know for certain what the terms are. It’s possible that part of these contracts are not guaranteed, or that they have team options included somewhere, which would make both deals much more appealing.
Contract aside, there is a lot to like about the Deng deal. Not only does his name provide for a plethora of puns, but he is also an excellent fit for the Lakers’ young roster.
A 12 year veteran, Deng’s experience will be invaluable. Larry Nance Jr. recently spoke about how much watching Brandon Bass’ work ethic impacted him last season, and Deng is known as one of the most dedicated grinders in the league. There are few better to set a positive example, which is an intangible benefit that goes beyond the stat sheet.
In particular, this move should go a long way towards developing prized rookie Brandon Ingram. Having a two-time All-Star like Deng to lean on will undoubtedly help Ingram transition to the NBA both on the court and off the court. The veteran tricks that Deng has picked up over the years will certainly be valuable, but so will advice on managing life as a professional athlete.
Deng spent the prime of his career acting as Tom Thibodeau’s work horse for the Chicago Bulls, wracking up a massive number of minutes. While the mileage has to be a concern for Deng’s longevity, the positive side is that he has learned, out of necessity, how important maintenance is in order to make it through an 82-game season.
Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle had the benefit of watching Kobe Bryant’s extensive regimen last season, and now Ingram (and Ivica Zubac) will get a similar education from Deng.
Of course, Bryant was at the end of his career last year, and oftentimes appeared to be held together by little more than athletic tape and determination. Deng isn’t at that level just yet, and will still be expected to carry a heavy burden on the court for the Lakers.
With Ingram surely needing to be brought along slowly, Los Angeles needed immediate help on the wing, and Deng was the best one available at this stage of free agency.
He has spent most of his career as a small forward and go-to defender, taking on the challenge of marking the opposing team’s best player. Last season, Deng showed versatility when he slid down to power forward in order to replace Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat, who was unavailable due to blood clots.
The move actually somewhat revitalized Deng, allowing him to mask the fact that he has lost a step by matching up with players who aren’t quite as quick as most modern wings. While the Lakers will likely slide Deng into the starting small forward slot, expect to see him play plenty of minutes at power forward as well.
Deng’s positional versatility could allow Lakers Coach Luke Walton to play small, emulating the dreaded “Death Lineup” of his former team, Golden State Warriors. If Walton follows that example, Mozgov projects to be his Andrew Bogut, starting games and helping to control the paint. When it’s time to push the pace, Mozgov would take a seat, and either Randle or possibly Nance would slide down to center. In such a scenario, Deng would fill the role of Andre Iguodala, playing as a stretch power forward.
The Lakers can’t match the Warriors small ball style exactly, but a lineup composed of Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Deng, and Randle has the potential to be an intriguing bunch on both ends of the floor. That said, free agency is far from over, and the pieces that Walton has to experiment with could change quite a bit before training camp starts in September.
Big picture, Deng fits well on a Lakers team that badly needs veterans who can be both a mentor and be a serious contributor on the court. Even though he is on the downside of his career, Deng’s career averages of 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1 steal illustrates just how versatile he can be, and that comes in handy for a team with so many young question marks like the Lakers.
Additionally, while he isn’t the defender that he was five years ago, Deng is still a plus on that end of the court, and his grit and grind mentality should help a team that ranked dead last in defensive efficiency.
The bottom line is that Deng isn’t the superstar signing the Lakers had hoped for, and he isn’t likely to turn them into serious playoff contenders overnight. However, in terms of moving forward and building an identity, bringing a high-character, productive player like Deng into the fold has to be considered a win.