Luol Deng’s box score from the Los Angeles Lakers 116-107 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night won’t blow anyone way. 10 points on 10 shots with six rebounds, three assists, one steal, four fouls, and a team-high 33 minutes still aren’t the type of production most people expect from a team’s highest paid player.
The game was still one of Deng’s best efforts of the season, and it highlighted a real issue for the Lakers: although Deng was originally drafted as a small forward and played it for the majority of his career prior to joining the Lakers, he’s found the most effectiveness over the last year as a power forward.
Deng played the majority of his time as a three for the Miami HEAT last season (66.6 percent versus 32.8 percent as a power forward) according to Nylon Calculus, but he was far more efficient when playing the four. Deng posted higher averages in effective field goal percentage (58 vs. 49 percent), points per-36 minutes (14.3 vs. 13.5), and rebounds (eight vs 5.9) when he played power forward vs. when he played small forward.
That trend has (mostly) held true in Los Angeles so far this season. 82games.com hasn’t been updated to reflect the game against the Spurs, but Deng has had a better eFG% and posted a higher PER at the four this year while only seeing a slight drop-off in points per-48 minutes.
The Lakers are also only being outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions with Deng at power forward as opposed to five when he plays the three. The Lakers’ offensive (107 vs. 104.5) and defensive ratings (108.9 vs. 109.5) have also both improved when Deng slides up a position.
These numbers are illustrative, but the eye-test can tell us most of what we need to know about Deng. With the floor better spaced, his declining burst matters less and he has more room to fire his three-pointers.
During his best stretch of the game in the first half, Deng was able to walk into a three over tiny Tony Parker in transition because neither of the Spurs’ big men ventured out to check him:
He also snuck in and snatched an offensive rebound for a putback here because his man abandoned him to protect the rim:
Deng’s strong close to the second-half, coupled with Brandon Ingram’s horrific shooting night (1-9 from the field), earned him closing minutes against San Antonio. However, he was only able to produce two assists while missing all three of his shots in the second half.
“I’m trying to figure it out out there,” Deng told Mike Trudell on Spectrum Sportsnet after the game. “I had a lot of looks, but at the same time there’s a lot of other things out there that I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to help the team while I’m on the floor in any way possible.”
Deng may only be able to do so as a four, which seems like a solution until one realizes that the Lakers also have two young players in Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. who need minutes at that position.
Deng hasn’t been good enough to eat into either of their minutes so far, and while Randle can and will play some at the center, there is no way Deng can play the majority of his minutes at his best position with both of those players on the team.
That’s a problem because, barring a killer offer, the Lakers are unlikely to be moving either Randle or Nance any time soon and it’s unlikely they paid Deng $72 million over the next four years to warm the bench and serve as a solid locker room presence.
There is no easy solution here outside of Deng picking up his play even while playing on the wing, something that seems highly improbable based on what we’ve seen over the last year.
Luke Walton has seemed to make just about all the right decisions so far in his first year as Lakers head coach, and how he manages Deng and the rest of the frontcourt over this season and the next several looks like it’s going to be one of the earliest challenges of his tenure.
Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.