Luke Walton has options when it comes to his rotations. This summer, Mitch Kupchak brought in a slew of veterans in an attempt to fortify the roster around the team’s young core. It’s unclear where they’ll all fit, but Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, Yi Jianlian and Jose Calderon each figure to play a role.
While the Mozgov deal may have been the most curious move any team in the league made over the offseason, the acquisition of Deng looks questionable on the surface, too. The Lakers had already drafted Brandon Ingram No. 2 overall a month before inking Deng to a four-year deal, yet they both seem capable of handling starting small forward duties. It just so happens that the Lakers’ shallowest position from a year ago is now likely their deepest. So, which should get the job?
Deng has quietly been one of the NBA’s most productive two-way players over the last decade. His career numbers don’t jump off the page in any one area, but last season, in Miami, he effectively reinvented himself as a guy who can play either forward slot. With Chris Bosh on the shelf for the second half of the season, Erik Spoelstra deployed Deng as the starting power forward alongside Hassan Whiteside and Joe Johnson for long stretches.
The Heat surged into the playoffs with that unit in place. From the All-Star break through the end of the regular season, Deng averaged 15.2 points and 7.8 rebounds playing the majority of his minutes at the 4.
True, $72 million was an awful lot to give to a 31-year-old, but his role with the Lakers will be just as important off the court. Deng has a reputation as a hard-worker and as a strong teammate. The senior statesman of the Lakers’ young core is currently Jordan Clarkson, who turned 24 three months ago. Walton figures to relate well with the team’s kids, but Deng’s stability should prove beneficial on the floor and in the locker room.
Perhaps Deng’s most important pupil will be Ingram. Walton has said that players will have to earn their roles coming into the season, and based on what we saw out of him in Summer League, it will be tough for Ingram to beat Deng out for the starting three spot. However, the fact that the job is even an open audition is a breath of fresh air after the way the Byron Scott ran the Lakers. He surely would’ve relegated Ingram to the bench from day one.
More often than not it seems as though young players improve more quickly by getting early opportunities to contribute. It’s on Ingram to prove he’s worthy of the minutes, but it’s also Walton’s duty to make sure the rookie gets ample chances to show what he can do. That’s why Ingram, not Deng, should be the Lakers’ starting small forward once the games count on October 26.
If the Lakers believe the young group of Ingram, Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle has a chance to succeed together long-term, they should be on the floor together as often as possible. With the other three being apparent shoo-ins for starting spots, Ingram should be right there with them. Deng is clearly still a starting-caliber NBA player, but accepting a reserve/mentor role this season would make him more valuable to the Lakers than he would be as a starter.
Walton also has the roster flexibility to be able to theoretically roll both Ingram and Deng out there together in the starting five. Deng’s aforementioned ability to play the 4 could push Randle to the bench. Or he could choose to go big with Deng at SF and Ingram at the two guard spot, sliding Clarkson into the reserve unit.
One thing the Lakers’ new coach can’t afford to do is yo-yo some of the youngsters in and out of the rotation the way Scott did a year ago. Russell and Randle battled confidence issues all season long as a result of Byron’s whimsical ways. Once Walton makes a decision on a rotation, he needs to stick with it.
Minutes for both Ingram and Deng need not be an issue if they’re both to play primarily at small forward. The only other real wing on the roster is Anthony Brown, who seems destined for mop-up duty–if anything.
Deng knew when he made the decision to come to L.A. that the rebuild, not wins and losses, is priority No. 1 this season. Starting Ingram and bringing Deng off the bench is what’s best for the Lakers both now and in the future.