The 2021-22 season has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Injuries to star players like LeBron James and most recently Anthony Davis have gotten in the way of LA’s bid for an 18th title. But more than anything, their injuries have exposed the Lakers’ depth, which is mainly comprised of a ragtag group of veterans on cheap one-year deals.
Given the exorbitant salaries of James, Davis, and Russell Westbrook, the Lakers had little choice but to scour the bargain bin for inexpensive talent. But another reason why the Purple and Gold have been forced to shop in the clearance aisle is because of a $5 million paycheck going toward a player who hasn’t played in over two years.
The Los Angeles Lakers gave Luol Deng an ill-advised contract in 2016
The 2016 NBA offseason was very lucrative if you were an average player available for hire.
Thanks to a massive salary cap spike, teams had money to burn. And they fully intended to burn it on all the free agents. One of those teams was the Lakers, who handed shocking long-term deals to veterans Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng.
LA lucked out getting out of Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million deal after one season, sending the overpaid center to the Brooklyn Nets along with D’Angelo Russell in exchange for Brook Lopez and a first-round pick that turned into Kyle Kuzma. Meanwhile, Deng’s contract loomed over the Lakers far, far longer.
The two-time All-Star Deng inked a four-year, $72 million deal with the Purple and Gold. Ideally, the veteran would bring some leadership and experience to a young team that just lost Kobe Bryant to retirement. Instead, all the Lakers got were 57 subpar games (56 in the 2016-17 season) in which he averaged 7.5 points on 38.7% shooting.
In 2018, months after the Lakers signed LeBron, Deng was bought out of his remaining two years. He would then sign a veteran’s minimum deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves before retiring in 2019.
Deng has been paid $15 million over the last three seasons
Buying out Deng saved the Lakers money in the short term. But after cutting ties with the 15-year vet shortly before the 2018-19 season, LA is still budgeting out a few million dollars every year as a result.
The Lakers used a stretch provision to waive Deng, meaning they’d be paying the former All-Defense honoree his remaining $15 million across three seasons. That benefitted LA in the short term, allowing it to add players during the 2019 offseason (i.e. Anthony Davis). But it also meant $5 million in dead cap starting in the 2019-20 season and for the next two seasons after that.
The Purple and Gold actually tried to get Deng’s $5 million hit removed from the team salary cap in 2020, applying for a career-ending injury exemption. However, the motion was denied by the NBA.
The Lakers are feeling the effects of Deng’s cap hit
Even though it’s considered dead cap, Deng’s $5 million still counts against a team’s salary cap. For a franchise like the Lakers that has had to routinely dance around salary cap constraints, that can make things very tricky.
Past Westbrook, nearly all of LA’s additions last offseason were minimum-salary players. Many of them were well-known veterans — Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, to name a few — but the ceiling on all of them was fairly limited. And so far, the early returns on those veteran additions have trended toward the negative side.
A significant reason why LA had no choice but to go after those types of players was because of Deng’s contract, which pays him more than all but four Lakers in 2021-22. If his money instead went toward better depth, the Lakers likely would’ve fared better if one of their stars went down with an injury. Unfortunately, that has been the case this season, with Davis expected to miss another three weeks at minimum.
That being said, the Lakers can make a trade or explore the buyout market. But their options are limited, as their wiggle room has slimmed down significantly due to the dead cap hit for Deng.
Considering Deng’s buyout freed up the funds to get Davis and win a championship, it’s nearly impossible to bash LA for its decision. But there were obvious risks that would lead to consequences down the line, and we’re seeing that now for the disappointing Lakers.