Luol Deng is going to be a pretty popular guy this summer. Assuming LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph don't opt out of their current contracts, Deng will be the NBA's most sought-after free agent this side of Carmelo Anthony.
And for good reason, if his performance on Tuesday night is any indication. The South Sudanese swingman was nothing short of sensational, netting a team-high 27 points on just 15 shots (including 5-of-5 from three) to help the Cleveland Cavaliers fend off the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, 120-118.
The result left Cleveland and L.A. with identical records—14-24—albeit with drastically disparate outlooks attached. The Lakers have now lost five in a row and 11 of their last 12 to move into a virtual tie with the Sacramento Kings for second-to-last place in the Western Conference. The Cavs, on the other hand, have their sights set on a playoff push in the awful East after winning three of their last four.
That's why the Cavs shipped three picks and Andrew Bynum's excisable contract to the Chicago Bulls in the first place. They wanted—nay, needed—a savvy veteran at small forward who could not only keep Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee off the floor but also lend some wisdom to a team whose ostensible leader (Kyrie Irving) is still shy of his 22nd birthday.
Deng didn't exactly dominate during his first two outings in a Cavs uniform. He surrendered 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting to Richard Jefferson in a win over the Utah Jazz and followed that up by allowing Rudy Gay to pour in 20 on 8-of-12 from the field in a calamitous 44-point loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Truth be told, Deng and the Cavs didn't exactly sparkle defensively in L.A., either. They let the Lakers shoot 52.4 percent from the floor, with Nick Young and Jodie Meeks combining to score 54 points and knock down 10-of-18 from three.
Of course, it's not as though the Lakers' perimeter defense was at all exemplary. Cleveland nailed just as many threes (13) as did L.A., but in half as many attempts (17), many of which were wide open.
In that regard, the Lakers could've used a wing stopper like Deng to slow down ... well, a wing scorer like Deng. Meeks and Wesley Johnson have both flashed potential on the defensive end, but neither has managed to pester opposing ball-handlers and contest shots with any consistency.
The same could be said of just about any aspect of Lakers basketball of late. Their reliance on streak shooters and unproven role players—with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash both out and Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds, three assists on Tuesday) constantly fighting through one bit of adversity or another—worked well enough for them early on, when they were 10-9, but has since come back to bite them in a big way.
Even with a healthy Bryant, who could be back by the end of the month, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, it's tough to imagine the Lakers doing much to dig themselves out of their current ditch, which reeks like the one into which they fell in 2004-05, immediately after Shaquille O'Neal was dealt to the Miami Heat.
Likewise, the Lakers would be hard pressed to meet Kobe's demands for a competitive club if they're to return next season with a collection of cheap castoffs and misfits similar to the one they've fielded in 2013-14. Luckily, L.A. could have the financial flexibility to go out into the market this summer and get themselves another piece to, at the very least, present the Black Mamba with the illusion of playoff contention for his last two seasons in the NBA.
To that end, Deng certainly seems like someone who should and will be on the Lakers' radar. Hoopsworld's Alex Kennedy would tend to agree, noting Bryant's affinity for Deng and the team's previous attempt to acquire him during Kobe's last "trade me" fit back in 2007.
The Lakers figure to track Deng closely as the season progresses. They'll see what he can do as a complement to another ball-dominating guard in Kyrie Irving (13 points, four assists in L.A.) and as a catalyst behind the Cavs' playoff push.
L.A. will likely be eying a turnaround of its own, perhaps with a blue-chip prospect gleaned from the 2014 NBA draft in tow.
The question is, will the Lakers be able to lure Deng away from Cleveland—or any of the other suitors who will be beating down his door on July 1? The Cavs can offer Deng more years and more money than anyone else can, with a handful of cap-flush clubs with better incumbents (e.g., the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns, the Washington Wizards) figuring into the mix. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the Bulls tried to extend Deng for three years and $30 million but were denied, at which point they opted to unload him in exchange for draft picks and cap relief.
As much as the Lakers may think they're the prettiest girl at the dance due to their winning brand and their prime location, collapses like the one they've endured since late December can't help their chances of acquiring a sidekick to ease Bryant's twilight.
Especially when Deng, the best one around at this point, is as popular as he's expected to be in this year's free-agent class.
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