The Los Angeles Lakers have some veteran voices in their locker room, the most tenured of which is forward Luol Deng. A 13-year NBA veteran, Deng signed with the Lakers as a free agent in 2016, yet he has seen his role dwindle this season after appearing in 56 games last season.
As the Lakers look to decipher the skills of their young players like Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and others, Deng has taken on more of a mentoring role for L.A. Yet Deng wants to do more than serve as an adviser to the coaching staff -- he wants a tangible role somewhere. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com has more from Deng on his desires to land a role elsewhere:
"It definitely hurts," Deng told ESPN on Monday after the Lakers' practiced. "But the only answer for me now is to prove myself away from L.A. I'm not asked to play, I'm not in the rotation, so I can't prove myself here.
"Most of these young guys don't understand the business of basketball, so if I come in here and I'm angry every day, I'm taking something away from them. I have to be smiling, I have to be in the best mood I can be in, because they're living their dream of being an NBA player."
Deng said he and his agent, Jeff Austin from Octagon sports management, have been working with the Lakers to find a resolution to the situation, either via trade or buyout, but he understands it may take weeks, months or even years to settle as he has two years and $36 million remaining on his contract after this season.
A Lakers source confirmed that the team has met with Deng's representatives to find a solution, via trade or buyout, that would allow him the opportunity to play more.
"You just never know. It could be a month, it could be a week, it could be three months," Deng said. "I don't want something to happen and I'm called upon but my shape holds me back. The challenge is to challenge yourself to be in better shape than if I was playing. Then if I fall short I'm still in good shape."
Shelburne reports that Deng has appreciated the honesty with which coach Luke Walton has talked with Deng about his role. Yet Deng feels his sub-par production last season was an outlier in his career and he can still contribute in the NBA:
"You spend the whole summer like, trying to come back for the city, for the team, to prove that it was just one bad year. But the opportunity's not there," Deng said. "I know I make a lot of money, but for me -- I came from nothing so it's always been about the love of the game.
"I've always given it everything. Every single team that I've played for, every single person would tell you that I've given it everything every single day. That's the toughest part for me because I'm so used to competing and giving it everything. I'm also used to not doing great and turning it around. My whole life, every time I've been down, I've found a way to turn it around."
The Lakers have made little secret of their desire to clear salary cap space to chase free agents the next two summers. The $36 million they owe to Deng over the next two years will make it difficult to create enough room under the cap to sign the type of max-level free agents they intend to pursue. If they cannot find a trade for Deng, as they did for Timofey Mozgov (who'd been signed to a four-year, $64 million deal the same summer), the Lakers' only options will be to buy him out or waive-and-stretch out what they owe Deng. That would spread the salary cap hit out over five years, rather than two.
"I'm just being patient," said Deng, who has been inactive for nine of the Lakers' first 10 games. "Throughout my career I've never really been a guy who created drama or wanted to deal with drama. At the end of the day I know what it is, I know I can play the game. But it's the situation that I came into."