LOS ANGELES — Most teams were flush with spending power when the NBA's salary cap jumped from $70 million to $94.1 million in July.
The Los Angeles Lakers hit the summer with new head coach Luke Walton, the second pick in the draft (Brandon Ingram) and a cadre of young, talented players like D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Yet they still had enough space under the salary cap to sign two maximum-salaried free agents.
L.A. had hoped it would receive an audience with players like Kevin Durant, Hassan Whiteside and DeMar DeRozan. But after striking out with the stars, the Lakers spent their free-agent money on veterans Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and, via trade, Jose Calderon. They also reinvested in Jordan Clarkson, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal.
Clarkson has been one of the Lakers' best players this season. Mozgov, at $64 million over four years, has been a serviceable starting center, scoring 8.4 points a game while shooting 57.5 percent from the field. Calderon was brought over from the Chicago Bulls, along with two second-round picks. His $7.7 million expiring contract isn't a long-term concern.
It's the Deng signing, at $72 million over four years, that has stood out for all the wrong reasons.
The 31-year old forward is the only Laker to start every night this season, but he's shooting a career-low 34.1 percent from the field. He's scoring only 6.8 points a game on 7.5 attempts. The Lakers' best defensive lineup features Brandon Ingram at small forward and Larry Nance Jr. at the 4, not Deng.
Earning $18 million this year, Deng the team's highest-paid player. And he's the least-efficient regular contributor.
While Mozgov was signed to fill an area of need at center, the Lakers gave Deng a long-term deal to play the same position as Ingram, who should be the team's starter at small forward by next season (if not sooner).
Last year, Deng filled in well for an injured Chris Bosh at power forward with the Miami Heat. With teams going smaller, Deng is better suited at the 4, but the Lakers also have Randle and Nance who need to play most of those minutes.
To his credit, Deng has been a positive voice in the locker room. He hasn't complained when Walton hasn't played him to close out games. The Lakers needed to add mature, quality people to the roster, and Deng fits that bill well.
But then, so does Metta World Peace at a minimum contract for one year at $1.6 million.
So, what options do the Lakers have, if they wanted to get out of Deng's deal?
The answers aren't entirely clear with the NBA and the NBA Players Union working to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). A new pact, which would start next season, could change some of the rules that might pertain to Deng.
If it includes a one-time amnesty provision, the Lakers would be able to waive him outright. The team would still owe him $54 million, but that money would come entirely off their salary cap.
Another option, assuming there's a reasonable chance the CBA doesn't include such a provision, is waiving and stretching Deng's salary over seven years, which would cost the Lakers $7.7 million a season.
The better choice is finding a trade partner (Deng cannot be dealt until Dec. 15). The challenge would be finding a team willing to take on the veteran's entire contract.
Deng spent many years playing for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. Thibodeau is now the head coach and president of basketball operations with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
If Thibodeau was open to a reunion with Deng, perhaps he'd be willing to give up a player like Shabazz Muhammad, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. To match salaries, the 'Wolves would need to send the Lakers a player like Nikola Pekovic, who is out for yet another season with an ankle injury.
The Lakers wouldn't covet Pekovic—who may not play again in the NBA—but he is under contract for next season at $11.6 million. That's a hefty price to pay, but he's owed $42.3 million less than Deng's $54 million over the next three years.
While it's possible other teams may have interest, Deng's age, price tag and performance level thus far doesn't exactly put the Lakers in the driver seat on the trade market.
He isn't the only recent free agent signed to a four-year deal to create buyer's remorse this season. Evan Turner's $70 million hasn't worked out well for the Portland Trail Blazers. Joakim Noah is vastly overpaid at $72.6 million with the New York Knicks. Chandler Parsons inked for $94.4 million with the Memphis Grizzlies but has not been able to stay healthy.
L.A. may find a trade partner, but is more likely stuck for now. The team still projects to have enough spending power in July to chase a high-level free agent. Deng's salary is far from crippling, but the Lakers clearly aren't getting much bang for their buck.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Williams Carrying the Offense
Lou Williams has poured in 78 points through 66 minutes of back-to-back games, torching the Memphis Grizzlies and Jazz—albeit in losses.
"What did we lose by, seven or eight points? So, I probably needed seven or eight more," Williams said. "You hope everybody plays well enough to win a basketball game. After sitting down, no matter how many points, rebounds, or any of that stuff you have, if you don't come out with a win, the goal is short."
The Lakers actually lost the pair of contests by a combined nine points.
"It's been a pretty impressive two games from him. I feel bad that we lost both," Walton said. "You give that much effort and energy, you hope to help the team get a win."
Facing multiple injuries, the young Lakers have turned to Williams to help carry them through.
"Lou is a quiet guy, but when he speaks, people listen," Walton said. "He's been a great leader for us and when we need him, he steps up on the court. I think that gives other players a lot of confidence."
Black, Calderon Add to Injury Woes
The Lakers are dropping, one after the other. They were already without D'Angelo Russell, Nick Young and Larry Nance Jr. on Saturday when Jose Calderon came up limping just eight minutes into their game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Sure enough, the veteran guard suffered a right hamstring strain that will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks.
On Monday, Tarik Black left Staples Center on crutches after spraining his right ankle in the third quarter against the Jazz.
L.A. has tried to manage with Russell missing 11 of its last 12 games with a sore left knee. The second-year guard has been cleared to ramp up activity but won't play the Houston Rockets on the road on Wednesday.
Young's right calf should keep him out at least another week, if not longer. The Lakers are missing some serious firepower without their starting backcourt. Russell is averaging 16.11 points a night while shooting 37.2 percent from three-point range; Young is at 13.3 points on 41.8 percent from deep.
Calderon may not be as dynamic at 35-years old, but he's a competent point guard who has also shot well from behind the arc (41.7 percent). The Lakers' strength in depth has taken another hit without him.
Walton turned to Ingram at the point in the loss to the Jazz but acknowledged he might move Clarkson or Williams to the starting group when the Lakers play the Rockets.
"We're getting pretty close to that," Walton said of splitting up his high-scoring reserves. "With the amount of people going down, it might be time to roll in that direction and see how we do."
Although Nance returned to the active roster (bruised right knee) on Monday, the Lakers chose to rest him an extra night as a precaution. He's questionable for Houston. Black is out.
The Lakers were a surprisingly competitive team to start the season, winning 10 of their first 20, but injuries have contributed to a three-game slide. Until Russell, and then Young and Calderon return, L.A. is playing at a significant disadvantage.
Once a franchise has four players out for at least three games in a row, the NBA allows for that team to temporarily add a 16th player under the hardship rule.
Thus far, the Lakers don't qualify. But at this rate? It may just be a matter of time.
Retro Nick Young
Not in uniform, the player known as Swaggy P (or more recently Uncle P) arrived at Staples Center in style Monday night.
Young made a stir when he walked into the Lakers' locker room pregame in a colorful, retro outfit.
"Fresh out of the '70s," Young said.
In addition to his two-button shirt that showed off his bare chest, Young also wore what might be termed a dress-slipper, if there is such a thing.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," teammate Williams teased.
Fashion is eternally subjective.
Zubac returns from D-League
Before the game on Monday, the Lakers recalled rookie center Ivica Zubac from the D-Fenders, after a lengthy stay in the NBA Development League.
"I wasn't playing anything with the Lakers, so it's better to stay [in the D-League] and get some minutes," Zubac said. "They wanted me to work on my game and stay in shape ... [coach] told me at the end of the year, he wants me to be five times better individually than I was at the beginning of the season."
Zubac helped the D-Fenders improve to 7-3, averaging 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds over six games. The 19-year-old even hit half of his six three-point attempts, along with a few of his signature move, the sky hook.
How do the players in the NBA Development League compare to those in the NBA?
"Not even close," Zubac said, outside of other NBA players on assignment and a few individuals. "Some players are good in the D-League, but a lot of them are not even close to the players in Europe."
The Lakers will soon head out on a seven-game road trip. Zubac said he doesn't know yet if he'll travel with the team or get reassigned to the D-Fenders while the Lakers are on the road.
Zubac may need to stick with the Lakers, given the injuries to Nance and Black. Walton has been hesitant to give the inexperienced rookie significant time, but he may earn minutes by attrition.