Luol Deng Buyout Clears Path for LA to Chase Kevin Durant in 2019 Free Agency

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 3, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2017, file photo, Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) reacts after a foul called against him during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, in Oakland, Calif. Durant looks at LeBron James from afar and marvels at how the Cavs main man keeps finding a way to take his game to another level, year after year. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Luol Deng's run with the Los Angeles Lakers is officially over.

The veteran forward earned a staggering $17.2 million last year for what proved to be a single 13-minute stint in the season opener (call it $8.6 million per point scored).

On Saturday, the Lakers officially set the 33-year-old free, waiving him despite another two years and $36.8 million left on his contract.

According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, Deng will give up $7.5 million to pursue other opportunities, dropping the figure to a still-expensive $29.3 million.

It's important to understand the nuances, but big picture, the Lakers finally finished cleaning up their books enough to try to lure Kevin Durant to play with LeBron James in Los Angeles next summer.

Finally, the mistakes of 2016—notably the two significant investments in Timofey Mozgov and Deng—are history. The moves led to the firings of Jim Buss (still a part owner of the franchise) and Mitch Kupchak.

Now, only Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac remain from the previous regime.

The natural question of the Deng move is, "Why now?"

The answer lies in the NBA's rules on the stretch provision. The deadline to waive and stretch Deng for the 2018-19 season was Aug. 31. Had the Lakers cut him one day earlier, his full $29.3 million would have been paid out over five seasons at $5.9 million per year.

Instead, Deng's full salary, an estimated $14.3 million after applying $3.7 million of the buyout, will stay on the Lakers' books for the year. Los Angeles was already over the league's $101.9 million salary cap; shedding Deng doesn't change that.

It's Deng's second year, reduced to $15 million, that will stretch over three seasons through 2021-22 at $5 million per season.

By waiting until September, the Lakers took the brunt of Deng's salary on this year's books while trimming $13.8 million from next summer's payroll. The sacrifice is $5 million in lost spending power for the following two seasons, but that shouldn't be a significant factor. If the team lands a second star next summer as it hopes, the Lakers won't have to worry about protecting cap room for several years.

After snagging James—the biggest free-agent acquisition by any franchise this summer—executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka quickly committed one-year contracts to Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson. The quest for a big-name partner for James will probably have to wait until the summer of 2019.

While waiting, the team hopes one or more of its young prospects like Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Ingram step into that role.

John Locher/Associated Press

Based on the NBA's current $109 million cap projection for 2019-20, Durant (the most expensive at $38 million) headlines the list of potential free agents. He may not leave the Golden State Warriors, but if he is interested, the Lakers will have just enough to pay him.

With a roster of eight players next July—Josh Hart, Moritz Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, James, Ingram, Ball and Kuzma—the Lakers project to have $38.2 million in cap space.

To get to that figure, the Lakers would have to renounce the free-agent rights to everyone else on the roster. The team's 2019 first-round pick would shrink that number by $1 million to $2.4 million, assuming L.A. makes the playoffs, but that's a much smaller obstacle than Deng's salary. If needed, the Lakers can trade down or out of the draft, or they can select a player who is committed to playing overseas for a year.

The price for the other high-level potential free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving will be nearly $33 million next year, giving the Lakers up to another $5 million to play with.

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi LeonardEric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

Regardless, Deng had to go for the Lakers to afford a second star. The team could have waited, but a $7.5 million reimbursement is something. It cost losing Deng as a trade asset, but in real-world terms, he was a trade liability. The Lakers knew the market well, and the cost would have undoubtedly been prohibitive.

Why deal Ingram, Kuzma or Hart when you can just pay Deng to go away?

Los Angeles has drafted well in recent years, and the franchise is better off using its picks for roster depth. Had the team kept Deng in purgatory another year, the $7.5 million discount certainly wouldn't have been there next July.

The franchise may have sacrificed a small amount of flexibility, but the Lakers locked in the guaranteed space needed to pursue Durant. They are shooting their shot and have a long list of stars to chase if the two-time Finals MVP turns them down.

              

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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