Lakers bench two highest-paid players in favor of developing young talent

NEW YORK -- With an eye toward their future, the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers made a dramatic change to their starting lineup Monday prior to their 121-107 win over the New York Knicks, moving their two highest-paid players to the bench in favor of two young, promising players.

Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, started in place of forward Luol Deng, and third-year center Tarik Black started over center Timofey Mozgov.

Deng and Mozgov, who each joined the Lakers in free agency last summer, have contracts totaling $136 million, a pricey duo to come off the bench.

Given that the Lakers entered Monday with the NBA’s third-worst record (17-36), it’s not as though any experimenting with the lineup poses any real risk. If anything, the Lakers can afford to make changes, considering they have a top-three protected pick in this summer’s draft and more losses will only help them keep it.

Lakers coach Luke Walton said he spoke to management -- specifically general manager Mitch Kupchak and co-owner/executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss -- before making the decision.

“They both were supportive about it and said, ‘Do what you think is best for the team,'” Walton said. “It was a nice conversation.”

And of the high salaries for Deng and Mozgov, Walton said, “Obviously, it comes to mind. But it always comes back to what I think is best for the team, not only tonight but also the future of the team, and we try to make decisions based on that, not on the salaries or anything like that.”

Deng signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Lakers last summer. Mozgov inked a four-year, $64 million contract. The next highest-paid player after those two is guard Jordan Clarkson, who makes $12.5 million per year.

When asked about the benching, Deng replied after the game, "Does it mattter? I would never make it about me. This is always about the organization. It’s about the guys in this locker room. So whatever is the decision that the coaches make, whatever they think is best for the team, that’s what we’ll do."

Deng added: "For me, the whole year I knew it’s about the young guys. I think everybody knew that. We’ve got a lot of talent in this locker room and we want to develop the young guys. But whether it happens now or if it happens 10 games before or 10 games later, that’s a decision they’re in position to make."

Walton acknowledged that this late in the season, the focus is turning more toward developing the team’s young players whom the Lakers hope are cornerstones of the future. Ingram and Black started alongside point guard D’Angelo Russell, shooting guard Nick Young and forward Julius Randle, giving the Lakers their 17th different starting lineup of the season.

“I’m not going to say it’s permanent, but we’re going to see how it goes,” Walton said before Monday’s game at Madison Square Garden. “If they come out and have a bad first quarter, we’re not just going to blow it all up and go back to the other starting lineup to start the second half. We know that they’re young, and that’s part of why we’re doing it.

“They’ll have some leeway, but at the same time, I told them it’s not the freedom to just go and do whatever you want because you young guys are going to play no matter what. We’re still expecting them to follow the rules and play a certain way, and if that doesn’t happen, the only way to teach at that moment is to take their minutes away. So it’s not a free-for-all with the minutes and the lineup.”

Ingram has started in 14 other games, but Walton said starting Ingram with other young players at Madison Square Garden isn’t happenstance.

“One of the great experiences in the NBA is playing in this building. What we see him being for us in the future, it’ll be fun to see how he handles this type of environment and pressure,” Walton said of Ingram.