Last year, the only place the Los Angeles Lakers roster had a logjam was in the frontcourt. With young players like Kyle Kuzma, Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle needing minutes, plus Brook Lopez requiring time, there was simply no room for Luol Deng in the team’s rotation.
Deng not playing didn’t hurt the Lakers’ cap sheet any more than his contract would have if he did play, but it did make the nearly $18 million he was making a tougher pill to swallow in terms of perception.
This season appeared to be a bit different. Given that the Lakers’ depth at center is so poor that they’re reportedly planning on playing LeBron James there consistently, one popular outside-the-box candidate to get some minutes at the five was Deng, especially since it was a way to get him on the court.
Plus, given Deng’s success at the four in Miami the year before the Lakers signed him, and how the league is going increasingly smaller, it seemed possible that Deng could actually recoup some of his value, even if he’d still likely need an asset attached to move his contract to another team no matter how well he played.
But it seems all that theorizing is pointless anyway, because according to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, one Lakers executive thinks Deng is basically done in the NBA.
Could Luol Deng be a stopgap as a small center after sitting out most of last season?
The executive said Deng is all but semi-retired. He may never play again in the NBA unless he has a change of heart.
That last line means that anything is possible, and who knows? Deng was a consummate professional last season, diligently staying in shape and helping the Lakers’ young players develop while functionally serving as an incredibly well-compensated assistant coach. Maybe he has fun in training camp this season and decides he’s ready to battle for a role in the rotation.
But if the Lakers are okay — even anonymously — admitting that the second-highest paid player on their team may be making $36 million over the next two seasons in essentially a paid retirement and deal with the strange optics of that, then it would seem very likely Deng is done.
That would be a sad end to an ultimately underrated career, but it seemed likely the minute this deal was signed that this would end badly, and the Lakers have nothing to gain by embarrassing Deng or getting into a standoff with him. It appears both sides realize that things might just be done, and are trying to handle it as gracefully as possible, respect that surely won’t go unnoticed by free agents around the league.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.