When the Lakers signed Luol Deng to a generous free agent contract ($72 million) I had two thoughts. The first thought was that Deng was looking to get paid and was willing to sacrifice wins so he could live in a Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach crib while making sure his kids were well provided for deep into their adulthood. And two, he found something attractive about being a mentor. Someone must have taken young Deng aside once upon a time and made a lasting impression. Why else would Deng, at 31 and still in his basketball prime, be so willing to mentor Brandon Ingram? Wouldn’t his competitive instinct drive him to be on a playoff contending team with meaningful games and not a rebuilding team that may get to be what they dream of when Deng is long gone and perhaps even out the NBA? My conclusion: it was a money grab that could work if Deng played as little as possible.
Deng is playing as little as possible. 25.0 minutes, a career low. 7.3 shot attempts, a career low. 33.3% shooting, a career low. 4.7 two-point shot attempts, a career low. An eFG% of 38.6%, a career low. 0.7 free throw attempts, a career low. 1.2 offensive rebounds, tied for a career low. 1.6 assists, a career low. True Shooting % of 40.8, a career low. PER of 8.8, a career low. 6.2 points, a career low.
For any other player, those numbers would indicate a NBA career going off the rails and fast, like an elevator in free fall. I’m not saying that Deng is the player he used to be when he was with the Bulls, 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 46.0% shooter, but he willingly accepted the role of father. His presence was to inspire. To teach. To fill in the empty spots and make a shot or two but this team isn’t about him. It’s about the kids and making sure they learn something about being a professional and how to be the most impactful on the court. It’s about teaching them how to win, and more importantly, how not to lose.
Deng willingly accepted a role Kobe Bryant would not. It put him face forward in the backseat. And in the process he would get paid the highest salary on the team. The Lakers went from paying Kobe Bryant $25 million last year to paying Luol Deng $18 million this year.
Of the Lakers players who are playing 20+ minutes, Deng has the lowest offensive rating. His rating is 92 and falling fast. Deng has the third best defensive rating at 105. He’s not making shots but he is still connected defensively. It’s a win-win for the African born, London raised, Duke trained, Deng. He gets his money and the Lakers get an adult in the locker room and experience on the court.
How has it worked out so far?
Pretty good. The Lakers were predicted to have a rough start but they beat a very potent Rockets team on opening night and then went into Atlanta and beat up on Dwight Howard’s team, an upset. It has since been revealed that the Lakers were motivated by the Hawks considering them “soft” and so the Lakers played with a little added intensity. There will come a day for this young team that they won’t need someone throwing shade. They will want to destroy a team because they want to destroy a team. But for now, whatever works.
The team with the youngest coach in the NBA was supposed to start out 1-8 but they are 5-4 and much better than anyone thought. They are third in the league in 3- point defense. They are third in the league in scoring. They are 1st in bench points, 3rd in offensive rebounding, 3rd in steals, 6th in field goal percentage, 4th in total rebounding. Jim Buss is having the last laugh.
And Luol Deng is quiet and participatory, a cheerleader who can still exert a defensive identity, while he cashes huge checks and mentors Brandon Ingram.
photo via llananba