Luol Deng played a total of 13 minutes last season. He played every one of them in the Lakers’ season opener against the Clippers, and that was it — he was either inactive, didn’t enter the game, or wasn’t with the team for the next 81 contests.
Deng, a 14-year veteran, wouldn’t have an impact on a team, let alone the league, if he had a reasonable contract. But Deng was owed $36.8 million over the next two years by the Lakers, and thus was an impediment to their lofty goals. Saturday, he and the Lakers agreed to a buyout. Deng gave up $7.5 million to no longer be in Los Angeles, and the Lakers stretched his remaining contract over the next three seasons, per ESPN. Here’s what that means for Deng, the Lakers, and the one team that predictably is interested in him.
This is a multilayered victory for the Lakers. By buying out Deng and stretching him on September 1, and not August 31 or earlier, it allowed for only his 2019-20 salary to be part of the stretch provision. They’ll pay him $14.3 million this season, but only about $5 million each season from 2019-20 to 2021-22. In short: Deng’s monster deal is no longer a cap hurdle, just a small recurring payment. And the Lakers didn’t have to give up an extra asset to do so.
More importantly, getting Deng to leave some money on the table provides the Lakers with a max slot for players who could earn $38.2 million a year. Is that Kevin Durant’s music? Or it could be Kawhi Leonard’s, Jimmy Butler’s, or Klay Thompson’s too.
Lakers executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are making moves with clear intentions: Even after getting LeBron this summer, 2019 appears to be when they’ll go all in. The Lakers have created the necessary cap space. Now, it’s just about reeling in the fish.
All of this would not be possible without Deng’s concession. He not only agreed to the buyout in the first place, but also left $7.5 million on the table. 7.5! It’s easy to look at the overall number and say that that doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things … but that is exactly what someone who has never made a million dollars (myself included) would say.
The more direct interpretation of this move is that Deng bought himself a new opportunity. The 33-year-old still wants to contribute to a team. Thirteen minutes in one season must feel like a poor way to end an impressive career for the two-time All-Star. Wouldn’t you want to go out swinging?
It’s unclear just how much Deng has left, however. He is an established veteran, has played more than 30,000 minutes in his career, and averaged 26.5 minutes two seasons ago. But he also averaged just 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in the 56 games he played during that 2016–17 season. He’s not exactly fresh, given he barely touched the ball in a live game over the past calendar year. But in a league that is still handing out contracts to a 41-year-old Vince Carter to provide veteran wisdom, there’s no reason Deng can’t still contribute. We know of at least one team that will come calling as it looks for a familiar face …
The Tom Thibodeau experience is becoming something of a self-parody. His reunion with Jimmy Butler helped bring the Wolves back to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But as time goes on, the jokes about Thibs trying to re-create his Bulls teams are becoming a reality. Currently, Thibodeau has three former Bulls on the Wolves roster: Butler (whom Thibs traded for in Minnesota), Taj Gibson (whom the Wolves signed last summer), and Derrick Rose (whom the Wolves re-signed this summer after a two-month test run last season).
Recent reports suggest more could be on the way: The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski suggested on Twitter that Minny has interest in not just the recently bought-out Deng, but also [takes deep breath] Joakim Noah. Thibs and former Bulls — it’s a twisted basketball love story.
Sure, the Wolves ended their playoff drought last season, but they didn’t exactly inspire any confidence with their five-game performance against the Rockets in the first round, or their lackluster (and troubling?) offseason. Adding Deng or Noah — the latter of whom is coming off multiple injuries and was last seen literally underwater — won’t do much except make the Wolves a near-exact replica of the early-2010s Bulls … in 2018. Congrats?