12 games into the 2016-17 season and the Los Angeles Lakers have hope. This young team has already stepped up to beat the top teams in the West (Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors), and with a 7 and 5 record, they're exceeding all of the expectations people had for them before the season started.
Coach Luke Walton has done a remarkable job managing his rotations, with 9 players playing 20-30 minutes a night and not a single player playing over 30. Many teams would have players unhappy with the minute distribution, but this Lakers team is embracing it.
D'Angelo Russell is averaging almost 17 points a game and 5 assists. Julius Randle is not all that far from averaging a double-double with 14 and 9 and Nick Young is relishing in his new role as a lockdown defender.
But if you had to pick on one downside to this team, it would be the play of Luol Deng. So far this year as a starter, he's averaged 24 minutes a game, 6.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and an awful 31% field goal percentage.
Luol Deng was brought in as a free agent this summer to fill in cap space and bring some much-needed veteran leadership to a young locker room. However, this is not the Luol Deng of old. This is the old Luol Deng, who still hasn't recovered from playing multiple years under Tom Thibadeau, in a system that demanded its starters play maximum effort defense while playing close to 40 minutes per game. A system that saw Deng lead the league in minutes two years in a row.
By the time Deng left Chicago he had almost 0 left in the gas tank. Now that he's in Los Angeles Deng can't buy a shot, and his ability to guard players on the perimeter is not nearly as impactful.
The Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram with the 2nd pick in this past summer's NBA Draft. Everybody knew that coming into the league Ingram has the talent, it's just a matter of getting his body NBA-ready.
Just look at the way he defended Brooklyn Net's power forward Trevor Booker. He takes the contact, plays fundamental post defense, and ends up getting an easy block because of his long extension.
Like Coach Nick said, Ingram is growing right in front of our eyes. His offensive game is already there, as it was in college. So what is holding back Walton from starting Simmons over Deng?
To delve even deeper into the numbers, when Luol Deng is on the court for the Lakers, they have a plus minus of -3 and a true shooting percentage of 56.1. When he is off the court, the team has a plus-minus of +6.2, a 58 percent true shooting, and the second highest offensive rating, behind Jordan Clarkson at 112.4.
Comparatively, when Brandon Ingram is on the court, the team has a plus-minus of +4.7 and a true shooting of 57.5 percent. When Ingram is off the court, the Lakers have a -1.1 plus-minus and a 56.7 true shooting percentage.
Not only do the Lakers have a positive scoring output when Ingram is on the court, but they also have the exact opposite in Luol Deng, who is a negative impact offensive player.
Even looking at their numbers Per 36 minutes, Ingram is clearly the better scorer, averaging 11.3 points to Deng's 9.6.
Is this the end all, be all for the start Brandon Ingram argument? No.
Ingram is still a growing rookie, who will experience up and downs. Deng is there to teach him and show him the ways of becoming the excellent talent he can be. The Lakers are already distributing their minutes evenly, at 24 and 22 minutes apiece, so it's not as if starting Ingram will get him an enormity of playing time.
At some point, Luke Walton will have to hand over the starting small forward reigns to Brandon Ingram. Number 2 overall picks don't sit on the bench for long, and if the Lakers are to continue their success as the 3rd best scoring team in the league, Deng's weak offensive role needs to be reduced by giving Ingram a chance to start.