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From the moment Luol Deng was signed, there was more than a little resistance to his addition. Using the money that was originally to be used on Kent Bazemore, the Lakers handed Deng a contract far greater than market value.
While the fit, on paper, was there, on the court this season, Deng has not consistently performed up to the expected level for a myriad of reasons. While there have been stretches where Deng has looked good, his level of play has not yet warranted his massive payday.
In 46 games this season, Deng has a net rating of -6.8, tied for sixth-best on the team with his rookie counterpart Brandon Ingram. His offensive rating of 101.5 is fifth-worst of rotation players. While his defensive rating is third-best on the team, it is still a gaudy 108.3.
Nearly across the board, Deng is averaging career-low marks this season. He’s averaging just 8.0 points, nearly four points lower than his previous low. His field goal percentage is at a career low, his three-point shooting is at its lowest in three years and a look at advanced stats offers similar results.
Conventional wisdom among fans suggests that Deng should see more minutes at power forward and it’s no coincidence that he is also playing a large bulk of his minutes this season at small forward. Last season, as has been well-documented, Deng was most effective at power forward as a stretch four.
This season, the results have been mixed. The first takeaway is that Deng is not playing much time at power forward. Just 37 percent of Deng’s minutes this season have been spent at power forward, a stark drop from last season in which he played 73 percent of his minutes at the four.
While the production has been mixed, Deng has been worse overall at power forward this season. Offensively, his offensive rating is 7.9 points higher at the power forward, but his defense at the four is worse. Overall, his net rating is better at power forward but his PER is lower than at small forward. (stats via 82games.com)
The counterpoint to all that confusion is a look at the Lakers’ best lineups this season. Of the lineups with at least 35 minutes this season, the top two in NetRtg feature Deng as the power forward, including the Lakers’ best defensive lineup.
So what do we make of all this information?
Getting the best out of Deng may not be as simple as playing him more minutes at the power forward. That being said, the most production we’ve seen out of Deng do involve playing him in lineups that play small.
Putting him alongside bigs like Tarik Black and Larry Nance, Jr. appear to help space the floor and place Deng in spots he can succeed. Deng and Black have the ninth-best NetRtg of any two-man lineups. Of the four best three-man lineups, three of them feature Deng and Black or Deng and Nance.
The obvious problem is the current logjam in the front court. With Ivica Zubac already looking for more minutes alongside Timofey Mozgov and Tarik Black and Julius Randle and Nance already taking up minutes at the power forward.
The bottom line is the Lakers invested a good fortune in Deng and should look to get production out of him when possible. That means fewer minutes at small forward, more minutes at power forward and more small ball minutes for Deng.
With the Lakers moving further out of contention, moving to small ball lineups that feature Deng could lead to more production.