On Thursday afternoon, the Los Angeles Lakers will travel as a team to American Airlines Arena in Downtown Miami, Florida, a place where 13-year veteran Luol Deng was a household name just two years ago. A lot has changed since then.
After playing a crucial role in the Miami Heat’s deep playoff run in 2016, Deng signed a massive four-year, $72 million contract with the Lakers in free agency. According to Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra, the team had planned on bringing Deng back, but couldn’t justify paying more than what LA had offered.
“I’d love to have Luol right now and have him suit up,” Spoelstra told the Orange County Register in December 2016. “We thought there was a chance we would get him at a way smaller number. There was that discussion that he wanted to come back and we wanted him to come back, but we obviously weren’t in a position to make that kind of deal.”
Whether it was gross incompetence, a last ditch effort to save their skins, or a combination of both by the former front office, Deng’s colossal deal is something that still befuddles Lakers controlling owner and president Jeanie Buss to this day.
“I just didn’t understand what the thought process was,” she told the OC Register’s Bill Oram in July, “whether our philosophies were so far apart that I couldn’t recognize what they were doing, or they couldn’t explain it well.”
But the complaints about Luol Deng start and end with his contract and how it complicates the current front office’s plans for the summer(s) ahead. Given his unique situation, Deng has been a model of professionalism. The question is, when and where does this all end?
Deng hasn’t played a meaningful minute of basketball since mid-October. He travels with the team, but doesn’t sit on the sidelines with his teammates. Instead, he plays make believe in a training room by himself, as detailed by this gut wrenching account by Bill Paschke of the Los Angeles Times.
Deng watches the game on television and imitates its flow. When there’s action, he runs on a treadmill. When there’s a timeout, he stops. When the whistle blows, he runs again. When the Lakers are playing defense, he slides his feet as if playing imaginary defense.
In honoring an All-Star career that once featured 11 consecutive seasons of 30-plus minutes a game, he stays active in his make-believe game for about 35 minutes, at which point the real game is usually ending. He waits for the buzzer, waits for his teammates to return to the locker room, then slips out into the night, another chance wasted for a 32-year-old body that is not getting any younger.
Deng might not be worth the nearly $17.2 million the Lakers are paying him annually, but he doesn’t deserve to be treated like a child playing dress up. After all, we’re talking about a two-time All-Star who prior to coming to Los Angeles had averaged at least 30 minutes per game in every season but his rookie season.
The only problem is, there is no clear solution to this problem. Ideally, the Lakers and Deng would agree to a buyout, but in order for it to make an impact on the team’s plans for this summer, Deng would have to take a significant pay cut. There is no incentive for him to do that, other than getting to choose where he plays basketball next, assuming there’s a team interested in his services.
They could also trade him, but in order to do so they’d likely have to give up an asset or two, like one of their promising young players, a draft pick, or some combination of both. If the Lakers find themselves in a position to acquire two superstar free agents this summer, that’s an avenue they might explore, but for a team that will be without their own draft pick because of a trade that landed them a “star,” trading away draft picks might not be the first thing on their mind.
Things could get even trickier if the Lakers strike out this summer. Deng has two years remaining on his contract after this year. If the Lakers don’t land a big fish this summer, Deng’s expiring contract could be an asset a year from now. However, that would mean another year of make believe basketball for Deng, something he’s surely not interested in.
Whatever solution they come to, it needs to be made soon. Deng will 33 years old in April and should be given the opportunity to salvage what is left of his NBA career. For as easy as he’s made life on the Lakers, the organization could do the same.