The summer of 2016 was a mixed bag for the Los Angeles Lakers.
On the one hand, the team hired Luke Walton, who looks poised to steer the franchise in a positive direction for years to come. The team also drafted Brandon Ingram that summer, and after a rough rookie season he has become a near-untouchable piece of the team’s blossoming young core.
On the other hand, the Lakers saddled themselves in salary cap hell by handing out three of the worst contracts of the offseason.
The first deal, a 4-year/$64 million monstrosity agreed to during the first minute of free agency (seriously, it’s still inexplicable and crazy to type nearly two years later), was removed from the books last summer at the cost of D’Angelo Russell.
A 4-year/$50 million deal for Jordan Clarkson appeared reasonable at the time, but aged poorly; the Lakers did manage to secure a late first-round pick by packaging Clarkson with Larry Nance, Jr.
The last major free agent signing of L.A.’s summer of 2016 is the last one standing – Luol Deng, who has two years remaining on his 4-year/$72 million deal.
As the Lakers pursue their grand free agency goals, Deng’s contract looms as the largest obstacle the front office will have to hurdle on the way to acquiring premium talent.
It’s clear that, despite Deng’s success in previous NBA stops, he does not fit into the team’s long-term plans, which leads to the natural question: How do you solve a problem like Luol Deng?
A repeat of last year’s campaign seems out of the question. After spot-starting in place of a suspended Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on opening night, Deng was out of the rotation for the entire season and not even on the bench during games.
In a rebuilding year, it wasn’t completely out of the question for the Lakers to waste a roster spot on a non-playing veteran; in a season with much higher expectations, that situation simply will not fly.
Reaching a buyout agreement with Deng also seems implausible. He is still due $36.8 million and is unlikely to recoup much of that money on a new contract since the Lakers have tanked his value over the past two years. Plus, a buyout wouldn’t give the Lakers any cap relief, anyway.
Stretching Deng is the simplest option. The value of his contract gets stretched at two times the remaining length of the deal plus one additional year, which amounts to $7,362,000 over each of the next five seasons. An important note is that this dead salary cannot be moved in a trade. That would save the Lakers about $10.6 million in cap room this summer and $11.4 million the following offseason, while also adding an additional hit the next three years.
Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus proposed a more creative way of stretching Deng’s contract by offering him a 3-year extension first to spread the salary over 11 seasons, although I don’t think the Lakers would attempt this maneuver after already drawing the league’s ire with a tampering fine.
That leaves trading Deng as the final possible outcome. This will likely be the trickiest salary dump for the Lakers thus far, given Deng’s lost season, the dearth of cap space around the league, and the knowledge that any trade would likely help facilitate the creation of a super team in Los Angeles. It seems like the rest of the NBA is no longer keen on those.
Let’s assume that the Lakers will attempt to receive no salary in return. That requires a team with at least $18 million in cap space that is not in contention, so we can rule out the 76ers, the Rockets, and probably the Pacers. Dallas is trying to get back in the playoffs, and has been rumored to have interest in Julius Randle, so they’re off the list.
Chicago, Sacramento, and Atlanta could take Deng’s contract into space, and the Lakers would have to send out their 2019 and 2021 first-round picks to make the deal worthwhile. This type of win-now transaction would probably take place after the draft, which is why the 2018 no. 25 pick is not involved.
If the Lakers choose to roll over cap space until next season, as Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have indicated is a possibility, they could still attempt to part ways with Deng and take back an expiring contract.
Let’s see what that might look like.
Option No. 1: Call up Sean Marks, and see if Brooklyn is interested in getting the whole band back together.
Los Angeles temporarily solves its backup point guard problem and takes a flier on a rangy wing who doesn’t fit in Brooklyn’s timeline. DeMarre Carroll could also be included here in place of Lin. Surrendering a first-rounder would be painful, but it’s hard to achieve a combination of assets that makes sense for both teams.
Option No. 2: Who loves Deng more than Mitch Kupchak?
Lakers send: Luol Deng
Hornets send: Dwight Howard
Charlotte alleviates some of its cap concerns in the short term while also freeing up minutes for Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller and getting a combo forward to alleviate the burden on Marvin Williams, assuming MJ still allows Blue Devils to play for his team.
For Los Angeles, outside of cap relief, this is actually a terrible idea. Dwight Howard no longer fits defensively or offensively in the modern NBA, and I’d probably cancel my Spectrum subscription before watching Howard on the Lakers again.
Option no. 3: Continue to pick on the weak GMs
Lakers send: Luol Deng, 2019 Chicago second-round pick
Wizards send: Marcin Gortat, Jason Smith
Washington clearly has had friction between Gortat and John Wall, so they can slide Ian Mahinmi in as the starting center while getting a forward who can actually play backup minutes. The Wizards also get a little more breathing room from the luxury tax this season. The Lakers waive Smith and give Gortat about 20 minutes a game, in which he runs a mean little pick-and-roll with the L.A. backcourt.
Ultimately, getting Luol Deng off the Lakers is going to be a painful process. Short of the front office deciding he suddenly fits in the team’s plans and Deng reclaiming the form he showed with Miami in 2016, this situation likely won’t end well.
No matter what happens, hopefully the coming offseason will at least bring some clarity to what has been one of the strangest Laker tenures in recent memory.