Striking out in free agency went from being an infrequent, shocking storyline for the Los Angeles Lakers, to one that draws regular sighs and laughs.
When “$60 million in cap space” and “top free agents available” were tied together, it used to rank Hollywood as the most desirable landing spot. Dwight Howard’s rejection in summer 2013 changed the trajectory of the franchise for the foreseeable future, dismissing the “Stay D12” billboards plastered across the city. His departure dropped the Lakers down to 27 wins the following year, and life hasn’t been the same ever since.
In the last three seasons — 246 combined regular season games — the Lakers have only performed “better” than one franchise. However, in this case, it’s like saying Johnny Manziel makes better life decisions than Greg Hardy. Their aggregate (the sum of the three seasons) net rating of -23.6 is almost three times as bad as Sacramento’s. And yes, it rivals the 76ers:
Sacramento Kings (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 105.7 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 108.8 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -9.4
- Record: 90-156 (.366)
Minnesota Timberwolves (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 106.1 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -10.2
- Record: 85-161 (.346)
Brooklyn Nets (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 104.7 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 108.7 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -11.7
- Record: 103-143 (.419)
Orlando Magic (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 102.8 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 107.3 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -13.5
- Record: 83-163 (.337)
Los Angeles Lakers (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 103.1 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 110.9 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -23.6
- Record: 65-181 (.264)
Philadelphia 76ers (since 2013-14)
- Average offensive rating: 97.9 points scored per 100 possessions
- Average defensive rating: 108 points allowed per 100 possessions
- Aggregate net rating: -30.2
- Record: 47-199 (.191)
Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott’s defense impoverished the Lakers’ defense to the worst in the NBA by a wide margin. League average for defensive rating was 106.4 this past year, and 105.6 for the previous. With the increasing pool of athletic and shooting talent, more teams are unguardable. It’s still no excuse for Los Angeles to have the worst three-year defensive stretch in the history of basketball.
A lot of it also had to do with Kobe Bryant’s farewell journey, which was focused solely on isolation scoring opportunities and very little defensive attention.
The Lakers’ defensive rating with Bryant on the floor was 116.8, which made the team 9.7 points per 100 possessions worse in addition to him jacking up ill-advised shots and allowing long rebounds (eventual transition opportunities).
Looking past Bryant, though, the defensive struggles have primarily resulted from the team’s youth. You can’t have high expectations to get halfcourt stops when three of your marquee players (Russell, Randle, Clarkson) are only rookies and sophomores.
Kicking off 2016 free agency, general manager Mitch Kupchak quickly addressed both of those concerns, regarding the proportion of youth and unripe defense.
Just an hour after free agency opened, Timofey Mozgov agreed in principle to a four-year, $64 million deal with the Lakers, paying him $16 million annually (17 percent of the new salary cap). Reactions were mixed, but the majority of the public wanted to exile Lakers management for committing so many years to Mozgov — more so than the actual payment.
On Day 2, Luol Deng received the last major contract of his career, accepting a deal with Los Angeles for four years, $72 million. It grants him around $18 million annually, which is just over 19 percent of the salary cap. Together, Deng and Mozgov take up $34 million of the $94.1 million cap, and Luke Walton should have a positive perspective of these additions.
Taking over for Byron Scott, Walton is faced with a tough task. It’s one that doesn’t offer much margin for error, and one that could make or break a young 36-year-old coach. Walton has to show significant growth within the talents of Russell, Clarkson, Randle, and Ingram. And he also has to win enough games to where the Lakers don’t become unendurable.
It’s arguably already reached that point, but what’s saving them is the undeniable success this young army has in front of them.
Helping Walton find the happy medium — which will allow him a greater probability of winning games to satisfy fans — are Deng’s contributions.
At age 31, Deng’s future isn’t drawing popular perception. While he’s not “washed up” or incapable of looking fresh in spurts, he has played the ninth-highest regular season minutes of any player in the league since 2004-05. His 29,050 minutes are fewer than only Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Andre Iguodala, Joe Johnson, and LeBron James.
He’s been run like a horse by Tom Thibodeau through Thibs’ first few years coaching the Bulls.
But, Deng’s age and mileage aren’t major issues that should’ve prevented Los Angeles from signing him. He’s one of the 5-10 most important wing-defending veterans that you would want guiding Ingram and Clarkson during this period.
However, the future deterioration is the only reason some were critical of the four-year deal. It seemed like a fantastic idea to give Deng the money his services would require, but for only a one-year or two-year deal. Deng will be 34 during the last year of his deal, and there’s no telling how much wear and tear will affect his body by then.
You also have to consider how moveable the contract will be by the time he ages since a relatively large salary for a veteran may be unattractive regardless of how large the cap is.
On a short-term deal, this signing would warrant an A-plus. Since Deng is still a well-crafted and coachable player, though, it’s far from the end of the world that Kupchak committed to a free agent of this caliber. The Lakers have swung and missed repeatedly through the years, so it had to be a blessing to see a ringless veteran skip out on a chance to win just to be one of the team’s leaders.
In the right system with the right coach, Deng can still be effective. His Box Plus-Minus (which encapsulates multiple facets of a player’s game, and stands apart from the traditional plus-minus) was +1.9 this past season, per Basketball-Reference. That would be subpar for superstar players, but it was Deng’s fourth-highest rating of his career and a massive boost from his previous two seasons (with Miami and Cleveland).
Fitting into Walton’s intended motion offense and sticking to a given role shouldn’t be a problem for Deng. He was just a member of a team that worked the ball inside a hefty amount and provided decent spacing for Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh (before the blood clots). He’s very adaptable and never has a problem taking a step back in the offensive hierarchy. He just finished a year that included his lowest Usage Rating (17.4 percent), and as a result, his fewest turnovers per 100 possessions (1.7).
“I hated Lu for a long time,” Wade said in April. “I think I just started liking him two months ago. Playing against him so many times in Chicago. But Luol, ever since (Bosh) went down; he’s been phenomenal for us.”
He has that effect on people, especially those who he battled against during his prime. After all, Deng was pivotal in keeping Wade’s last deep playoff run in Miami alive. Without his timely production versus Charlotte — 19 points and 6.6 rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting and over 51 percent from the perimeter — the Heat would’ve crumbled in the first round. While he did fall apart against Toronto in the next round, Deng showed that he still has meaningful “big-stage” moments left in the tank.
Not that these Lakers will sniff the playoffs, though. They won’t be in the picture until halfway through Deng’s deal, or later.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) July 2, 2016
A valuable component that Walton could see in Deng, other than defense, is his increased three-point attack as he ages. Deng is fresh off the highest three-point attempt rate of his career (.344), per Basketball-Reference. It indicates that 34.4 percent of his field goal attempts came from the outside, which is going to be the preeminent strength added to any lineup that involves D’Angelo Russell’s driving-and-kicking.
The only issue is that Deng’s reliability as a shooter was frustrating last year for Erik Spoelstra. Coincidentally, he shot 34.4 percent (same as his attempt rate) from beyond the arc. Only 22 players last season managed to take over 255 threes and hit less than 34.5 percent of them, which isn’t exactly at a distinguished level. Nevertheless, there’s a positive to take away from this. The list includes a few unearthly shooters, such as Devin Booker, Kyrie Irving, and Danny Green. With more spacing available in Los Angeles than what Miami provided for most of the year, Deng should find more consistent results from the wings and corners.
While the Laker brand is seemingly dying within the free agent market, it doesn’t mean this team is destined for future failure. They have the youth, surrounded them a universally revered defender on the wing, and still have a top-three protected draft selection for next June.
Kobe Bryant departed at the right time. Now, it’s time to see what a more sensible coach can do with this project.