Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng believes that he isn’t done as an NBA player, which sets up an interesting showdown between the team and the veteran they no longer want.
It’s been two years since the Lakers signed Deng to his infamous contract, paying him $72 million over four years. It was a jaw-dropping sum for a role player, ultimately becoming one of a handful of cautionary tales from the summer of 2016 when cap room exploded and middle-of-the-road players reaped the benefits.
Deng’s deal, in addition to the $64 million given to Timofey Mozgov, played a role in costing Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss their jobs at the helm of the Lakers’ basketball operations department.
After unloading Mozgov via trade, the Lakers made the decision last season to shelve Deng, with his lone appearance coming in a 13-minute outing on opening night.
With the weight of one of the league’s worst contracts hanging over him, Deng’s career has been in limbo. The Lakers moved on from playing him when they decided to feed minutes to their young players, making it clear that he is not part of their plans.
In a normal situation, the Lakers would look to trade a veteran like Deng or simply waive him so he can continue his career elsewhere; a favor to a player who has presented himself with class and professionalism.
However, the situation is far from normal. No team in the league is eager to take on Deng without significant compensation from Los Angeles, with the reported asking price to absorb his deal this summer being two of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart or first round picks.
Not surprisingly, the Lakers were unwilling to pay such a cost. Waiving Deng, the second-highest paid player on the team, also carries a heavy penalty.
Should they simply release him so he can continue his career elsewhere, the final $37 million they owe Deng over the next two seasons would still sit on their books, eating up valuable cap space. The Lakers could stretch that amount over the next five seasons, which comes out to just over $7 million per year, but that’s dead money on the books that can’t be moved.
Perhaps the Lakers would have considered waiving and stretching Deng had Paul George decided to join LeBron James in signing, which would have required the team to free up more salary cap room, but that scenario never came to pass.
For now, even though he hasn’t stepped foot on the floor, keeping Deng on the team at least preserves the possibility of a future trade, when asking prices eventually drop as the time left on the contract gets smaller.
It’s also possible that next summer, as an expiring contract, the $18.8 million left on his deal could be used for salary matching purposes in a deal to land a star.
Unfortunately for the 33-year-old Deng, there isn’t time to waste another season sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the day when a palatable trade materializes. Father Time is undefeated, and the sand in Deng’s basketball hourglass is growing short.
He recently expressed his frustration with the situation and desire to play. Deng still practices with the team, but it’s clear that the Lakers have no intentions of using him. One team executive even went so far as to describe Deng as “semi-retired.”
The Lakers are well-stocked at the small forward and power forward positions, where Deng would theoretically fit in. With James, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley primarily occupying those slots, however, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Deng earns minutes for himself even if the team did decide to give him another shot.
It appears that, at this juncture, there is only one option potentially available for Deng if he wants to play NBA basketball this season: a buyout. Should Deng offer to give back some of his salary in exchange for his freedom, perhaps the Lakers could be persuaded to let him go.
Though, it’s not clear how much he would have to forego in order for the Lakers to take him up on the offer. For Los Angeles, whatever money remained on the contract after the buyout would still count against their cap, though they could stretch it.
Such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. Carmelo Anthony just reached a buyout with the Atlanta Hawks after being traded there, giving back $2.4 million of the $27.9 million owed to him so he could sign with the Houston Rockets instead. That sum, however, probably isn’t enough to get the Lakers to budge.
Last September, Dwyane Wade gave $8 million of his $23.8 million salary back to the Chicago Bulls in order to clear the way for him to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Perhaps that would be enough to get the Lakers to relent to having dead money on their books, though even then they may be better off waiting until next summer to search for even better options.
Of course, for Deng to be motivated to give back anything, another team in the league would have to want to sign him and that currently seems to be unlikely. So for now, the Lakers and Deng remain in a stalemate as his career slips away.