LUOL DENG still wants to play. He has made that clear — from the moment the Lakers shut him down late in the 2016-17 season ostensibly to give young players more time on the court and up until they mutually agreed to part ways yesterday. And, yes, he still believes in his capacity to contribute meaningfully in another National Basketball Association uniform, and to the extent that he gave up a whopping 20% of his salary over the next two years just to be free of his contract.
Make no mistake. The $29.3 million Deng will be getting as a result of his buyout is a staggering sum. But so is the additional $7.5 million he would have received simply for doing nothing until the end of the 2019-20 season. Instead, he forfeited it to claim his freedom, never mind that the Lakers wanted the buyout done as well in preparation for the courtship of marquee free agents next year.
Indeed, Deng believes in himself enough to stake sure money on his future. He could have held tight and insisted on receiving every penny of the $72-million deal he signed in 2016, rightly believing that he deserved it. In so doing, however, he would have effectively bid goodbye to getting back on the court. And so he handed the Lakers the financial flexibility they coveted in order for them to afford him the opportunity to burn rubber anew.
It won’t be easy, and not simply because Deng will be exploring his options this late in free agency. He’s a year and a half removed from competitive action, and he didn’t exactly put up outstanding numbers back when he was a starter for the Lakers; per advanced stats, he was marginally worse than a replacement player in 56 games for the purple and gold.
Nonetheless, Deng is confident in his abilities, and he may well have reason. He took to the court early this month as part of the NBA’s outreach program in Africa and, if nothing else, proved that he can still ball; in 23 minutes of exposure, he netted 14 (on six of 10 shooting from the field), three, and three. The caveat is that an exhibition game in no way approximates the level of exertion required by an actual match, let alone over the course of an entire campaign.
In any case, Deng sought, and now has, a chance. And whether or not he finds himself part of another roster, his will wind up to be a cautionary tale on the realities of business in the NBA.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.