The Los Angeles Lakers received a lot of flak for signing Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to big-money, long-term deals, and deservedly so. However, both are being paid not just for their production on the court but also their veteran presence and professionalism off of it.
The Lakers have a roster packed full of young talent who need to learn how to play a team-first game, and the hope was that Deng, Mozgov, and others could help speed up the learning process.
Now, with the playoffs all but out of reach, head coach Luke Walton has asked his veterans to step aside and accept a reserve role so that the kids can have a chance to start. Not surprisingly, Deng took the demotion in stride (via Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times):
Luol Deng was asked how he felt about coming off the bench. "Does it matter?" he said. "I would never make it about me."
— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) February 7, 2017
Against the New York Knicks, Walton had Brandon Ingram replace Deng at the starting small forward spot and Tarik Black replace Mozgov as the starting center, and the Lakers won the game in a blowout 121-107.
Deng played 24 minutes off the bench while Mozgov didn’t play at all. It’s way too early to suggest that the lineup change is what led to the Lakers picking up a win, but it’s still an impressive debut for the youngsters.
It’s also very admirable for Deng to handle the demotion so professionally. While the argument can certainly be made that Deng is still taking up too much of the Lakers’ cap space, the example that he is setting by being so willing to move to the bench is an excellent one. As Walton attempts to build a team-first concept, Deng is certainly doing his part and leading by example.