Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 15, Luol Deng, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.
Luol Deng is headed into the third year of the four-year, $72 million deal he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2016, when teams around the league gave out money to free agents like it was Ellen’s 12 Days of Giveaways.
However, despite being the second-highest paid player on the team, only behind LeBron James, the 33-year-old, 14-year NBA veteran will have a tough time cracking head coach Luke Walton’s rotation for the second consecutive year. And by “tough time,” I mean it’s going to be nearly impossible.
Last season, Deng played just 13 minutes for the Lakers.
Not 13 minutes per game, 13 minutes total.
Perhaps there was a plan to integrate Deng back into the rotation before the start of the season, but that plan was undone by a combination of Deng’s discouraging play and the emergence of Kyle Kuzma.
But even when injuries started piling up on the roster late in the season, Deng couldn’t find his way back onto the floor. Why? That’s where things start to get complicated.
According to Walton (via Bill Oram), the decision not to play Deng was made after “several people” talked about it, including Deng. However, in a recent interview with Stuart Hess of Independent Online (IOL), Deng vehemently denied that conversation ever happened.
“I know the level I can play at and the decision is something they came up with, whatever the criticism or the plan is, none of it was my decision, people need to understand that,” Deng said. “They can say whatever they want, I know I can play the game, they see me at practice every day. If it was a game thing then come out and say it, but the honest truth, it’s the decision they made.”
If what Deng said is true, that’s obviously not a good look for the team, however, team politics won’t be the only thing keeping Deng out of the rotation this season.
As you may have heard, the Lakers signed LeBron James this offseason. James can play positions 1 through 5, but he’s expected to get the bulk of his playing time at the forward positions, where Deng would theoretically get his playing time.
Take James out of the equation and Deng would still have to fight for minutes at the forward spots with Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, Svi Mykhailiuk, Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga. Of those eight players, you can argue Deng has a leg up on one, maybe two, of them, and even that’s only because they haven’t played a single minute in the NBA.
Deng’s best, and possibly last, chance of playing in a Lakers uniform would involve him excelling at something he’s only done a few times in his career — playing at center.
Prior to signing with the Lakers, Deng’s career was given new life thanks to the decision by Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to play him at power forward. Deng wasn’t the biggest fan of the move at first, but after playing some of his best basketball at the 4, he preferred it to playing out on the wing.
“In terms of my future, I would like to play at the 4 more,” Deng told the L.A. Daily News last year.
Standing at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Deng has the size and the strength to play up front, especially in the modern NBA, where lumbering, slow-footed bigs are no longer a commodity. In fact, if Deng was five years younger, he would probably be one of the most sought after power forwards on the market with his unique ability to defend multiple positions and space the floor.
Those same attributes also make him an ideal candidate for a small-ball center today. Outside of LeBron James, the Lakers really don’t have anyone that can hold their own on both ends of the floor as a small-ball center.
If Deng can show he’s still capable of defending at a high level and knocking down open shots, Walton will have to find minutes for him. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that opportunity ever comes for Deng.
As much as he’d like to be on the floor, there just might not be room for him on the Lakers going forward, and there doesn’t seem to be any solution on the horizon that would benefit both parties equally.
Until that opportunity presents itself, Deng will be stuck in the same sticky situation he’s been in for almost two seasons now. Hopefully, there’s some semblance of light at the end of the tunnel in the near future, but until that happens, he’s hardly the most interesting player on this roster, even if how the Lakers approach his remaining time with the team is critical moving forward.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.
The countdown so far:
15. Luol Deng
16. Alex Caruso
17. Travis Wear