The Lakers stretched Luol Deng in 2018 with eyes on landing another star in 2019 to complement LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson all got mentioned.
Whether the move worked out is in the eye of the beholder.
Los Angeles opened an additional $13.81 million of cap space last offseason by stretching Deng.
The Lakers traded for Anthony Davis ($5,693,682 more expensive last season than the players dealt for him). They also signed Danny Green ($14,634,147 starting salary), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8,089,282), Avery Bradley ($4,767,000), JaVale McGee ($4 million), DeMarcus Cousins ($3.5 million), Quinn Cook ($3 million) and Alex Caruso ($2.75 million).
Obviously, Los Angeles would’ve dealt for Davis – the key complement to LeBron in the championship run – regardless. But who knows which of those signings wouldn’t have occurred sans Deng getting stretched, let alone how much each mattered.
Regardless, the Lakers’ bill now comes due. Rather than just paying Deng’s original contract, which would’ve ended this season, Los Angeles will incur $5 million cap hits each of the next two seasons.
Shams Charania of The Athletic:
Deng will get his remaining money regardless. The only question is whether it counts toward the salary cap and luxury tax for the Lakers.
Deng’s salary could be excluded if a doctor or panel of doctors (selected by the league and union) determine an injury suffered while he was with the Lakers “prevents him from playing skilled professional basketball at an NBA level for the duration of his career.”
The first big question: What injury?
Deng played only one game, the opener, in his last season with the Lakers. But that March, then-Lakers coach Luke Walton said, “He’s still really good at basketball.” Maybe Deng suffered an injury afterward or Walton’s words were untrue. But that statement looks like a major hole in the Lakers’ case that Deng was no longer healthy enough to play NBA-level basketball while with Los Angeles.
Another dent in the Lakers’ case: Deng sacrificed $7,455,933 in a buyout to leave Los Angeles. Maybe he was wrong to do that. He was definitely unhappy by the end of his tenure there. But that doesn’t seem like someone who thought he was finished as an NBA player.
Yet another element for the Lakers to overcome: Deng played 22 games with the Timberwolves the next season. At minimum, that indicates Deng didn’t suffer a career-ending injury with the Lakers. He wasn’t awful in Minnesota. Far from his peak, yes. But he wasn’t out of place on the court, either. He played at an NBA level.
However, those 22 games are not necessarily disqualifying for the Lakers’ application. If the league grants a career-ending injury exclusion THEN the player attempts to come back, he must play 25 games to negate the exclusion. But what if the player plays fewer than 25 games BEFORE the exclusion is decided? I see nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement covering this scenario. Logically, the 25-game test could still apply. But that’s seemingly open to interpretation.
So, Los Angeles’ request looks questionable at best.
But the upside could be significant.
The Lakers projects to land near the hard-cap line ($138,928,000)* next season. They could use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception $9,258,000)* rather than the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,718,000)* only if remaining below the hard cap. Deng’s $5 million cap hit could make the difference.
*Based on the salary cap remaining flat next season
Los Angeles could also easily pay the luxury tax next season and the following season. (Hello, Chris Paul trade.) Removing Deng’s $5 million cap hit would be welcome tax relief.
The Lakers could also open considerable cap space in 2021, even around LeBron and Davis. Dropping Deng’s $5 million cap hit could make the difference in whether a premier free agent joins Los Angeles that offseason.
There’s no harm in the Lakers trying to gain this extra flexibility. But don’t assume they’ll get it.