Between a bothersome Achilles injury, a trade he didn’t ask for and playing for a team he’s unimpressed with, Deng doesn’t have much else to look forward to, particularly since he could end up being one of the most sought-after free agents.
Granted, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are technically available, but both have options they can exercise and stay with their teams.
James isn’t likely to divorce himself from the Miami Heat, the team he has won two championships with, but Anthony might really be a free agent. Other than Deng and Anthony, the only notable name is Pau Gasol, who is on the downside of his career.
So Deng could be the second-best (or if Anthony stays with the Knicks, the best) unrestricted free agent available this summer. That’s in part a testament to just how overrated this summer’s market has been, but that doesn’t matter much if you’re Deng or his agent. Teams with money are going to be looking to spend it, and there are a significant number of them who have apparently set eyes on Deng.
Bob Finnan of the News-Herald says Deng “has rebuffed all talk about an extension with the Cavs, and might want to sign with a contending team in free agency.” So that rules out Cleveland.
So who’s interested?
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News identifies several clubs who are looking in Deng’s direction:
We’re surprised the Cavs did not move Luol Deng. He’ll be gone on July 1, no later than a minute past midnight, and despite an Achilles injury that prevents him from practicing on most days, he’ll be high on everyone’s free-agent list. The Mavs, Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Charlotte are all interested. Why not stay in Cleveland? Kyrie Irving doesn’t make players around him better and Dion Waiters is a me-first player.
There were also discussions for a trade to the Washington Wizards shortly before the trade deadline which “gained no traction,” per Ken Berger of CBS Sports:
There's no traction with Detroit or Washington on a Luol Deng deal, sources say. Cavs continuing to explore options.— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) February 20, 2014
Berger also noted that the Phoenix Suns showed interest but didn’t want to trade a first-round pick to rent him:
Phoenix, too, has resisted Cleveland's efforts to secure a first-round pick for Deng, who will be unrestricted after the season.— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) February 20, 2014
The Bulls offer that Deng turned down was three years and $30 million, so we can assume that it’s going to take more than that to ink him. When you consider the number of teams interested and the potential bidding war, it would be surprising to see him go for less than $12 million a year.
Andre Iguodala, similar in stature to Deng, signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Golden State Warriors after the Sacramento Kings rescinded a four-year, $56 million offer because they didn't want to wait. Similar money is expected for Deng.
All the teams mentioned above have at least that much cap space to work with, per hoopsrumors.com. However, the Suns, who have P.J. Tucker’s and Eric Bledsoe’s free agency to deal with and either three or four first-round picks, will probably will be priced out of the eight-digit market.
And, as mentioned earlier, Deng is looking to play for a contender. That’s going to leave Charlotte, Boston and Orlando out of the picture. They are teams on the rise but not on the cusp.
That leaves three teams, listed in order of preference from bottom to top: the Lakers, Wizards and Mavericks.
The appeal with the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who is one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the game. Deng is also a great personality fit with Bryant, who is a complete alpha dog. Deng thrives most when he doesn’t have to try and be something he’s not, and he’s better in a beta role. It would benefit him to go and play the right-hand man to Bryant.
If the Lakers could ink Deng while keeping Gasol and Jordan Hill and have Steve Nash directing the team, they would have a starting five that could compete, provided health isn’t an issue.
Of course, that’s a massive disclaimer considering that none of them has exactly been the poster boy for stability over the last couple of years. That could be a major disincentive for Deng, who has already had his share of heartbreak seeing his superstar leader in Chicago, Derrick Rose, lose three postseasons in a row to injury.
The Wizards make a lot of sense for Deng, and he has appeal to them. Trevor Ariza has been one of the more underrated players in the league while he’s been playing in Washington, but he too is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Wizards might be looking to change small forwards.
Deng has experience playing with young, explosive, scoring point guards in Rose and Irving. It’s not like he’s going to have to adjust to playing with John Wall, the Wizards' own young superstar.
Furthermore, the Wizards are taking team chemistry seriously after going through a period in their history with Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton literally drawing guns on each other in the locker room. They've worked out their problems and have become a stable franchise.
That means they are more “Bulls” than “Cavaliers” right now, which is important to Deng, who, according to Lawrence said of Cleveland, “The stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.”
Going to a situation which is not a “mess” would seem to give the Wizards a boost over the Lakers, whose superstar player is lobbing verbal grenades at the owners.
Dallas makes the most sense for Deng for several reasons. First, it’s a perfect situation in terms of fit and chemistry. Deng is a bad first option, okay as a second and fantastic as a third. He could serve that role well playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.
Second, Deng’s a great system player, but he’s not a great at improvising. He needs a structure to fit into, which means he needs a well-coached team. Rick Carlisle is a vastly underrated head coach with a championship pedigree.
Third, the Mavericks have a ton of money to spend. If, as reported by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, Nowitzki takes a “significant pay cut,” the Mavs could sign another quality player in free agency. They have about $32 million to spend, per ShamSports.com. If Nowitzki took a Tim Duncan-sized contract, he and Deng would combine for $22 million of that, leaving another $10 million for another free agent.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, they land Pau Gasol with that money. Could a starting five of Jose Calderon, Ellis, Deng, Nowitzki and Gasol win a title? It’s certainly feasible. There’d be some issues defensively in the post, but those could be resolved with the bench.
And Deng’s primary responsibility would be doing what he’s most comfortable with: providing help and perimeter D. Scoring as a third or even fourth option would mean that he could reserve his energy for his preferred end of the court.
And let’s face it: Having an owner in Mark Cuban who isn’t afraid of spending money would probably be a refreshing change to Deng.
Of all the possible situations this one would seem to be the best fit and the most potentially attractive to Deng. Don’t be surprised to see him in a Mavericks’ uniform next season.
*In an intriguing mini-tank situation the Suns have the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round pick, but it’s top-13 protected. Currently the ‘Wolves are in the 13th slot and the Suns are in the 14th. If the Suns slip below Minnesota, they get Minnesota’s pick (unless Minnesota gets a ball drawn).