When the Lakers signed Luol Deng to a generous free agent contract ($72 million) in the summer of 2016, I had two thoughts. The first thought I had about the Deng decision was that he was looking to get paid and was willing to sacrifice wins so he could live in a Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach crib while making sure his kids were well provided for deep into their adulthood. And two, he found something attractive about being a mentor. Someone must have taken young Deng aside once upon a time and made a lasting impression. Why else would Deng, at 31 and still in his basketball prime, be so willing to mentor Brandon Ingram? Wouldn’t his competitive instinct drive him to be on a playoff contending team with meaningful games and not a rebuilding team that may get to be what they dream of when Deng is long gone and perhaps even out the NBA but now is just treading water? My conclusion: it was a money grab that could work if Deng played as little as possible.
For the Lakers, Deng played as little as possible. They were happy. They got what they wanted out of the former All-Star. That Deng and his unshakeable character played 57 games in two years is pretty dismal. Of those 57 games played, almost all of them took place two seasons ago.
Last season, he played one game. More pathetic stats. 26.3 minutes, a career low. 7.5 shot attempts, a career low. 38.7% shooting, a career low. 4.6 two-point shot attempts, a career low. An eFG% of 44.7%, a career low. 1.1 free throw attempts, a career low. 1.1 offensive rebounds, a career low. 1.3 assists, a career low. True Shooting % of 47.1, a career low. PER of 10.1, a career low. 7.5 points, a career low.
For any other player, those numbers would indicate a NBA career going off the rails and fast, like an elevator in free fall. I’m not saying that Deng is the player he used to be when he was with the Bulls, 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 46.0% shooter, but he willingly accepted the role of father and because of that Faustian bargain and because his presence was to inspire, to teach, to fill in the empty spots and make a shot or two, no one knows who Luol Deng is anymore.
Can he play? How much can he play? Is his body just worn down? And what about his mind? Watching game after game after game and you don’t get to play and you know you are not going to play, can he bounce back that fast?
Two summers ago when Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak signed Deng to a sweetheart deal, Deng willingly accepted a role Kobe Bryant would not. It put him face forward in the backseat. And in the process he would get paid the highest salary on the team. The Lakers went from paying Kobe Bryant $25 million to do everything to paying Luol Deng $18 million to do nothing.
Luol Deng went along with it. He was quiet and participatory, a cheerleader who cashed huge checks and mentored Brandon Ingram. But with his Get Out Of L.A. Jail Free Card he can play in the NBA again. He can join a roster and prove he has something in the tank and that these last two years didn’t reduce him to next to nothing. At the very least, his physicality in the paint will matter to someone.
And so, in one way, it is Christmas for Luol Deng. He got his freedom as a NBA present. He can resume his career. The Los Angeles nightmare will never be behind him. Two years were wasted. But he can do more than appear in warmups. Luol Deng can reclaim what was lost.