When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to gargantuan contracts in free agency during the summer of 2016, the more common line of thinking was that Mozgov’s was the worse deal and would be far more unmovable.
Fast forward to the fall of 2017 and Mozgov is gone, with the Lakers new front office realizing what a colossal mistake the old one made and using D’Angelo Russell’s remaining trade value to entice the Nets into taking on Mozgov’s contract.
Deng remains, but not because he’s chipping in, or providing good value on the court despite being overpaid — as most figured he would do for at least the first two years of his four-year, $72 million deal — but because he might be legitimately unmovable. Furthermore, Deng is now completely out of the Lakers’ rotation.
That’s a problem for the Lakers, because Deng is untradeable without attaching a valuable asset if he continues to languish on the bench.
Still, the Lakers can’t afford to play Deng over their stable of young forwards like Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma at either the power forward or small forward positions.
The Lakers were never going to play Deng at the four with Randle and Nance there, and Kuzma’s emergence as a legit back-up small forward to Ingram while also warranting minutes at the power forward slot has successfully sopped up whatever remaining minutes Deng would have been useful in.
As a rebuilding team, there is a lot more value in giving those guys minutes to see what they can become.
Even if the Lakers could play Deng, it’s an open question how much production he could really give them. The 15-year veteran flourished as a small-ball power forward for the Miami Heat the season before he arrived in Los Angeles. He then floundered as a small forward last year.
The Lakers shut Deng down late last season in an effort to play their young guys, leaving him with 425 total points for the season, or $42,352.94 per point scored. For those who like advanced stats, the Lakers paid Deng $18 million last season for less than a full win share (0.9) added to their total.
Making matters worse is that Deng did that in 56 games, and it seems unlikely he would’ve produced more this year.
So if the Lakers can’t play Deng and can’t trade him (well, barring if they attach one of their young players like Lonzo Ball or Ingram, both of which are likely no go’s), what are their options if they still want to have room for two superstars in free agency?
The main, possibly only, avenue left for the Lakers is to use the stretch provision on the remaining two years of his contract this summer. The (aptly named) stretch provision stretches the cap hit of a contract the team wants to get rid of over double the remaining life of the contract plus an additional year.
In the Lakers’ case, stretching Deng would take the remaining $36 million on his contract and extend the hit over five years, meaning the Lakers would have him on their books at around $7.2 million until the summer of 2023.
Even for those who don’t want the Lakers to sign LeBron James because he’s “too old,” and also presumably believe Ball and his brothers will be working on their first three-peat in no time, having that much money tied up in a player not even on the books for five years massively cramps a team’s flexibility.
To sum it up, the Lakers just don’t have a good option when it comes to Deng. If they play him other than in case of emergency, it’s at the expense of a young player and it’s debatable whether or not playing him could even raise his value enough to make him a trade asset at this point (it probably couldn’t).
The team may have gotten out from under Mozgov’s deal, but despite how it appeared at the time, it might be Deng’s that costs them more, both figuratively (in the case of lost free agency opportunities) and literally (in terms of cold, hard cash).
Basically, Magic Johnson is going to have to live up to his nickname one more time to get them out of this deal and still make their dreams of LeBron and Paul George come true.