Maybe this was a partnership always destined to fail. Maybe signing a player with as much mileage to a contract so large, there would never be a good ending. Still, though, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reporting that the Lakers and Luol Deng are exploring their options to find him a new home are…if not a surprise, not your everyday piece of news.
From Shelburne’s report, detailing the aftermath of the Lakers turning to Kyle Kuzma to start after Larry Nance Jr. broke his hand rather than looking to the veteran Deng:
Deng remained right where he has been for most of the season — on the inactive list, while the Lakers prioritize developing their younger players over getting value out of the man they signed to a four-year, $72 million contract in the summer of 2016.
“It definitely hurts,” Deng told ESPN Monday after the Lakers practiced. “But the only answer for me now is to prove myself away from LA. I’m not asked to play, I’m not in the rotation so I can’t prove myself here.
Shelburne further reports that Deng and his agent have been working with the Lakers front office to “find a resolution to the situation — either via trade or buyout” but that all sides understand a resolution could take time (and maybe a lot of it) considering the money and years which remain on Deng’s contract.
Let’s tackle this part first because it’s most pertinent.
After this current season Deng still has two years and $36 million dollars on his contract. Getting out from a contract like that isn’t easy and carries ramifications which are difficult to navigate even for the most skilled front office. There are three options here, so let’s tackle each one:
1. The Lakers could trade Deng. A trade of this type, however, isn’t one that will favor the Lakers — especially when one report calls the market for Deng “non-existent”. They have a player who makes a lot of money, hasn’t shown he can be productive in the year-plus he’s been in Los Angeles, and he has multiple years left on his deal. This is what people refer to as a negative asset. In order to trade Deng, then, the Lakers would need to include more desirable pieces in the deal, which is something they’re not want to do.
2. The Lakers could waive Deng. Waiving him, though, doesn’t offer any salary cap relief unless Deng actually takes less money to get out of Los Angeles. One could argue that Deng has incentive to do this – he wants to play and won’t do that for the Lakers! – but how much is that incentive worth? A few million dollars? More? Let’s say Deng decides he’s willing to give up five of the $36 million he’s owed…that doesn’t really help the Lakers cap situation in the big picture. Remember, the Lakers want to chase two max level free agents next summer. Saving $2.5 million over the next two summers against $18 million owed doesn’t clear the decks in the way the Lakers will want.
3. The Lakers can use the stretch exception on Deng, turning the $18 million owed over the next two years (following this one) into $7.2 million owed over the next 5 years (following this one). That $11.5 million saved over the next two summers sounds great! The $7.5 million cap hit over the three years following those summers sounds bad. Especially for a team that will be looking to compete for even more free agents, hopefully adding those guys to a team that is ready to make a deep playoff run.
So, you can see the issues right? The Lakers don’t want to include assets in a deal to send Deng away, don’t want to eat his entire salary (or most of it) in the two summers they hope to make their biggest FA splashes, and don’t want to be paying for Deng’s contract in the 2022-23 season. This is why this might take time. And I mean a lot of time. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will want to win on this as much as possible because losing represents major negative impact on future plans to build a potential title contender.
As for Deng, the player, on its face it sounds silly to feel bad for a player pocketing as much money as he does. I mean, normal people look at his salary and then think to themselves “I’d love to make that much money to not do anything.” These normal people, though, miss the key point here: professional athletes aren’t like us. They have a limited window to do play this game.
Deng, a player who once had his life put in danger due to complications from receiving a spinal tap just so he could try to heal up and eventually play in basketball games again knows this better than most. Nothing is given in this world and he’s trying to play the game he loves. Being a good locker room guy and a veteran mentor is not the same as playing and Deng believes he still has more to give on the court.
And maybe he does. Miscast as a SF in today’s NBA, there are no minutes for Deng at PF on this Lakers roster. Kyle Kuzma has been playing great at that spot and what minutes don’t go to him would be better served being doled out to Brandon Ingram. Deng, meanwhile, was good for the Heat in the season before he came to LA playing PF next to Hassan Whiteside. On the proper team, with the proper surrounding talent, there’s a possibility Deng could return to form.
That team, though, isn’t the Lakers. And he, his agent, and the entire Lakers organization knows that. Finding a mutually beneficial solution, though, won’t be easy so don’t hold your breath waiting.