Determined to leave a disastrous two seasons behind them, the Los Angeles Lakers are already looking toward 2014 free agency.
More specifically, they're already looking at Luol Deng.
Deng makes sense for a Lakers team projected to be flush with cap space and in need of additional talent to make the most of Kobe Bryant's remaining days. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony aren't the flight risks they're made out to be, and after them, the free-agency waters are both shallow and tepid.
Realistically, Deng could be the most obtainable star on the market. Windhorst says the Cleveland Cavaliers are already exploring his trade value for fear of losing him this summer:
As they evaluate their team and try to make a deal to help them get into the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers are making recently acquired Luol Deng available ahead of Thursday's trade deadline, multiple league sources told ESPN.com.
The Cavs traded three future draft picks and Andrew Bynum to the Chicago Bulls to acquire Deng on Jan. 7. But the deal hasn't yet worked out how either side hoped.
Cleveland isn't determined to trade Deng, but with his impending free agency a concern, new general manager David Griffin is testing the market to see what the veteran forward might bring.
CBS Sports' Ken Berger confirms Windhorst's findings:
Cleveland gave up multiple picks for Deng and now faces the prospect of him leaving them with no return on that investment.— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) February 19, 2014
While winners of five straight, the Cavs are harbingers of dysfunction, having been the quintessential example of how not to run an NBA franchise since before James even left.
If Deng stays in Cleveland through this season, all indications are he's a legitimate flight risk. Seriously overpaying him might not even convince Deng to stick around.
"We did a lot of good things (Sunday), but we did a lot of disappointing things—things that reminds us that we’re not that good," Deng told Jodie Valade of the Plain Dealer in January. "And we’ve got to be honest with ourselves."
The Lakers' chances of landing him go way up in that scenario, with their ability to sell him on a more stable front office and flashier market.
Price will be an issue for the Lakers, though. They can afford to pay basically whomever they please, but they're also known to have interest in Kevin Love, per Berger, who will become a free agent in 2015.
Signing Deng could be an obstacle to that eventual pursuit, especially with Bryant alo on the books for $25 million in 2015-16. Deng, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, rejected a three-year, $30 million contract extension from Chicago before being traded to Cleveland, which is a surefire indication that he could cost the Lakers more than $10 million annually.
But an underrated storyline is Deng's recent play. He's struggled in Cleveland next to Kyrie Irving, averaging 14.6 points on 41.6 percent shooting with a defensive rating that would equal his career high of 109.
Which team is Deng more likely to be playing for next season?
All of this could be circumstantial, but that's kind of the point. If Deng's success on both ends of the floor was largely situational while in Chicago, that could damage his market value this summer, allowing the Lakers to sign him for around $10 million.
That's what makes Deng so perfect for Los Angeles. If he's snagged at $10 million annually, and the Lakers maintain maximum financial flexibility by not taking on any more long-term salary, Love remains a realistic option.
No guarantees exist at this point, but Deng gives the Lakers options. And they give him options—more than he currently has in Cleveland.
Salary information obtained via ShamSports.