The summer of 2016 featured a sudden boom in cap space in the NBA, creating a gold rush mentality that saw general managers tripping over each other to hand out massively inflated deals. Role players were paid like All-Stars as those lucky enough to hit free agency at the right time cashed in on the short-lived madness.
In today’s more conservative market, the contract of Luol Deng stands out as one of a handful of artifacts that illustrates just how far the excess went.
By delivering a four-year deal worth $72 million to the aging Deng, the Los Angeles Lakers became a cautionary tale about the dangers of desperation. Making matters worse, the Deng signing came just days after the equally questionable decision to throw a four-year deal worth $64 million at Timofey Mozgov.
In a matter of days, $34 million in cap space had disappeared, leaving many around the league scratching their heads in disbelief over what they had just witnessed. Clearly, the young Lakers needed veteran mentors, and Deng is near the top of a short list of players one would want tutoring Brandon Ingram, but the amount of money committed was shocking.
Now, with a new regime in place led by Magic Johnson at the helm, efforts are being made to erase the sins of the past. They paid the penalty to unload Mozgov’s deal by also sending young guard D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets and now must shift their attention to finding a taker for Deng so that they can have the cap space necessary to chase superstars like LeBron James and Paul George next summer.
It’s a daunting task, but they may find it slightly easier to move Deng if they can rehab some of his value next season. Stranger things have happened, as it was just a year ago when most believed that Nick Young’s NBA career was essentially over, but he had a bounce-back season in Luke Walton’s offense and is now a favorite to win an NBA Championship as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers need Deng to have that kind of resurgence, at least, if they have any hope of moving his contract without having to pay a fortune. His lone season with the Lakers saw him shoot just 39 percent from the field for an average of just 7.6 points in 26.5 minutes per game, all career-lows. With the playoffs out of reach, Deng’s season ended in the final days of February when the Lakers decided to shut him down.
Part of what the Lakers are paying Deng for is his veteran leadership and ability to act as a mentor to the team’s young core, but that value only goes so far. Teams aren’t willing to pay $18 million per season just for a mentor, so Deng will need to find a way to re-ignite his game.
As a career 45 percent shooter there is some hope that Deng can improve his efficiency, but there is also some trepidation that he may simply have nothing left in the tank at this late stage in his career.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Harrison Ford uttered the immortal line, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”, indicating that all the time Indiana Jones spent outrunning giant boulders and dodging poisoned darts had taken a toll. For Deng, unfortunately, it’s both the years and the mileage. He’s 32 and spent the prime of his career playing in Chicago for Tom Thibadeau, who is notorious for heaping massive minutes upon his starters.
At some point, the bill for all of those minutes comes due, and for Deng, it could simply be that the time is now.
If Deng is going to increase his value he’s going to have to prove that there is still some spring left in his step and that he can fill an important role. After all, teams around the league are desperate for wings who can play defense and hit threes, something Deng has shown an ability to do in the past.
However, that leads us to another problem: Even if Deng can show that last season was an aberration, he isn’t really a wing anymore. He’s a step or two slower than he used to be, and like many players when they age, the key to his longevity is a transition down one spot to power forward. The Lakers decision to use him as a small forward last season only served to prove that he can’t play that role anymore, and will need to be a four full-time in order to maximize his usefulness
Unfortunately, that’s also the position on the Lakers with the least amount of minutes available. In order to get Deng on the floor at power forward, Walton will have to take minutes away from youngsters Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Kyle Kuzma, which may prove to be too high of a price to pay.
Moving Deng’s contract as cheaply as possible is important for the Lakers, but is it important enough to potentially slow the development of their young players in the process? That’s the question that Walton will need to answer, and unless Deng can prove in training camp that last season was a fluke, it’s difficult to see him getting the call over Randle, Kuzma, or Nance.
The Lakers would love to see Deng bounce back this year, but the minutes may simply not be available for him to do so. Then again, we just watched Nick Young prove everyone wrong last season.
Here’s to hoping Deng can do the same.