Grades: Lakers add veteran leadership by signing Luol Deng
L.A. has agreed to sign unrestricted free agent forward Luol Deng to a four-year, $72 million contract, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. Deng, 31, averaged 12.3 PPG, 6 RPG and 1.9 APG while earning $10.2 million for the Heat last season. The two-time All-Star has won both the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award and its Citizenship Award during a 12-year career that has seen him appear in 62 playoff games and make multiple deep postseason runs in Chicago and Miami.
Unlike the Lakers’ signing of center Timofey Mozgov, which came at a steep price and raised major stylistic and fit questions, it’s easy to see where the Lakers are going with this one. L.A. was terrible on defense last season, it has major minutes to fill on the wings, and it needs a mentor for 2016 No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram. Deng is up to all three of those tasks, as he turned in a typically solid season in Miami (15 Player Efficiency Rating, +1.89 Real Plus Minus), can still play starter’s minutes, and shares a Duke pedigree with Ingram, who should develop into the face of the Lakers’ franchise.
From a fit perspective, Deng’s versatility is helpful: he should be able to find success regardless of how fast the young Lakers want to play under new coach Luke Walton and he is accustomed to playing off the ball as a complementary option, ensuring that Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle get their fair share of opportunities to learn on the job. Defensively, he can take the Kevin Durants and Kawhi Leonards of the world, allowing Ingram to ease into his new life competing against the West’s A-listers.
The big concern clearly is giving four years worth of starter-plus money to a player who has 29,000+ minutes to his name and who will be 35 when the deal reaches its conclusion. But the Lakers have bigger concerns than giving an extra year or two on a slightly inflated number to a proven professional. Namely, they need to rebuild a winning culture, they need to ensure that Ingram reaches his full potential, and they need to fix a once-sterling reputation that has been damaged in recent years. Deng isn’t a miracle worker, but he’s a step in the right direction on all of those counts. Walton, for one, is surely pumping his fist about this addition.