It wasn’t that long ago that Luol Deng was on everybody’s wish list. Now, he’s just another name in this summer's free-agency class.
But while rainbow chasers fantasize about LeBron James opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat, pursuing Deng is the kind of reality play that could pay nice dividends for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 6’8” small forward wouldn’t break the bank and is just the kind of skilled two-way player needed to complement a recharged Kobe Bryant as he launches into a two-year contract extension and, most likely, the end game of a legendary career.
I think you go to somebody like that, he gives you things that you need because I don’t think that Shawn Marion’s coming back. This is a guy who is a good small forward, a good two-way forward, he plays defense. This is like a younger version of Marion that you’d be getting here. I think it’s absolutely imperative they get a guy like that. You probably wouldn’t have to give him a max contract and I think that he’d be perfect.
And yet, while there are plenty who praise Deng for his lockdown defense and locker room leadership, he’s not getting above-the-fold billing as July 1 approaches—the first day that teams can officially approach free agents.
In fact, Chris Sheridan for Sheridan Hoops has Deng languishing at No. 12 on his top 25 free agents list.
Has Deng’s game really degraded all that much? Looking at the stats, you wouldn’t think so. His 16 points-per-game average this season exactly mirrors the average for his 10-year career.
Born in South Sudan, Deng and his family moved to Egypt during the Sudanese Civil War and were later granted political asylum in England. After attending Duke for his freshman year and going to the Final Four, Deng declared for the draft. He was selected as the seventh overall pick in 2004 by the Phoenix Suns and subsequently dealt to the Bulls.
Deng was averaging a career-high 19 points per game with the Bulls this season until they traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January for Andrew Bynum and future draft picks. Bynum was waived the next day.
The cost-cutting move by the Bulls didn’t particularly sit well with their coach, Tom Thibodeau.
Per ESPN Chicago, Bulls vice president John Paxson understood his coach’s frustration:
Look, it's not realistic to ask Tom or his staff to be happy about taking a player of Lu's caliber off your team. … But what has to happen within an organization is that when decisions are made, that as a group you have to align together, and you have to move forward.
Deng played 40 games with the Cavs, bothered by nagging Achilles and back injuries. His production dropped by five points per game compared to the first half of his season in Chicago.
He certainly had his moments with the team, however, including a 27-point outburst in a win against the Lakers in January.
Los Angeles is building for the future, and while still 29, Deng would hardly be part of a forward-thinking youth movement. Yet, his defensive intensity and mid-range scoring game would fit well into the kind of system the team is likely to embrace after their small-ball experiment went wrong under former coach Mike D’Antoni.
There’s the question of salary, of course—Deng earned $14,275,000 this past season and reportedly passed up a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Bulls before he was traded. How much more than that is he hoping to make? And did he misjudge the market and hold out for too much?
With only three players under guaranteed contract for next season, the Lakers have money to spend. They cannot, however, overpay if they’re hoping to corral the likes of James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love, either this season or next.
The speculation about superstars will continue, but there’s also a place for a solid second-tier contributor like Deng.