As the 2013-14 NBA season winds down, it's clear that the Los Angeles Lakers will target 2015—not 2014—as the free-agent class to help them rebuild. The Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan has reported that LA will bring back Steve Nash this summer, creating cap space for a superstar to join one year later.
The focus is on the future, but we can't ignore what lies immediately ahead. As Kobe Bryant put it back in March, "Oh yeah, let's just play next year and let's just suck again," per ESPN's Dave McMenamin.
General manager Mitch Kupchak may choose to sign short-term deals while awaiting a star, but Bryant's sentiment won't be forgotten. Los Angeles needs to be healthy more than anything else, but one solid pickup will be an unequivocal step in the right direction.
According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Luol Deng is "definitely on the Lakers' radar." The 28-year-old has dealt with health problems in the past, but he's proven he can be productive alongside ball-dominant scorers—a prerequisite for anyone looking to join Bryant and potentially another star down the road.
More than anything, Deng brings physicality and a defensive mindset to the table. Los Angeles desperately needs a lockdown defender on the perimeter, and that's exactly what the two-time All-Star has been throughout his career.
The Lakers would love to add Deng to the mix, especially when looking at the current roster. According to HoopsHype.com, only Nash, Kobe Bryant and Robert Sacre are guaranteed to return, and according to Bresnahan's earlier report, Kendall Marshall is staying put.
With the potential for a point-guard-heavy rotation—Jordan Farmar also wants to return, according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina—signing a floor general should drop on the priority list. Players such as Kyle Lowry and Avery Bradley still deserve a look, but locking down the perimeter with length and experience becomes a primary concern.
Deng's candidacy as a Lakers' target, as strong as he would be in LA, is contingent upon the almighty dollar. It was reported back in January by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that the forward rejected a three-year, $30 million extension with the Chicago Bulls. That said, the report also states that Chicago was "unwilling to pay Deng, 28, market value in the $12 million-to-$13 million-a-year range over four or five seasons."
If Deng is able to command a max contract this offseason (or a deal longer than LA wants to commit to), Kupchak and the Lakers must look the other way. That kind of money is reserved for the Kevin Love's and LaMarcus Aldridge's of next year's class, and it should only be spent in 2014 if LeBron James suddenly desires the limelight of Tinseltown.
Then again, the fact that Chicago denied Deng's request is the first step in determining his value, and as B/R's Dan Favale put it back in January, "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."
At this point in his career, Deng is not a superstar. He's not a No. 1 option, but that's not what LA needs him to be. He's earned a reputation as a "glue guy," which is something the Lakers desperately need in times of turmoil.
By all indications, Deng is the kind of player Bryant would love to play alongside. He's gritty, athletic and according to CSNChicago's Aggrey Sam, Deng's stated, "I want to win...I want to be in a winning environment."
The Lakers' organization has been the exact opposite of a winning situation as of late, but the right moves could change that over the next few years. For Kupchak, it's all about making the right pitch, and if the GM is smart, he'll make that pitch to Deng this offseason.