Column: Lakers make a late-summer splash by setting themselves up to add another superstar
The Los Angeles sports landscape was decorated last weekend by the emergence of sports stars young and old, from the cool JT Daniels to the charmed Matt Kemp.
Yet, admit it, many of you were focused on a guy who was never really here, and now is gone for good.
Hey, wait, look, the Lakers got rid of Luol Deng!
In news that broke Saturday smack in the middle of a Dodgers pennant race and college football openers, the Lakers and Deng had reached agreement on the buyout of a contract that had been clinging painfully to their necks like a late-summer burn.
While everybody was watching something else, the Lakers pulled off a combination walk-off homer and end-zone sack. Just when you thought the NBA had gone quiet, the Lakers let out a scream that will echo through next summer.
In one cleansing breath, they cleared the financial room to add a second superstar next summer to join LeBron James and turn this team into a true championship contender.
This was not really about Luol Deng, this was about Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard, or Klay Thompson, or Jimmy Butler, or even DeMarcus Cousins.
By essentially ridding themselves of the $36.8 million remaining on Deng’s contract, the Lakers have the salary cap space to afford one of those potential free agents. Remember when everyone said James wouldn’t sign here without being joined by another star? It will take a year, but the Lakers can bring him that star.
Certainly, they would have figured out a way to dump Deng at the end of this season, but, for many reasons, it’s just easier and smarter and smoother now.
“We made this move to further our future salary cap and roster flexibility, as we continue to build this Lakers team according to our overall vision,” general manager Rob Pelinka said in a statement.
That vision, as stated earlier by Magic Johnson, is a Lakers rebuild that would be complete in time for the 2019-20 season.
This fits perfectly into that narrative. This allows the Lakers to easily fulfill that promise. This also assuages some of the fears of the long-term effects of a current roster in which James will be matched with nutty veterans such as Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley.
When things get crazy, you can chill out. This year’s team is only temporary. Most of these veterans won’t be sticking around. James won’t be a lone star for long.
Whom will it be? By making this move now, the Lakers not only save themselves the $7.5 million that Deng will sacrifice so he could get back on a court somewhere — he played 13 minutes in last season’s opener, and never again — but they also set themselves up for a year of unofficial recruiting.
Whom do you like? Who would be the best fit? Who will be the recipient of a James pregame nudge or a Johnson postgame wink? Who will hear the loudest Staples Center cheers from a crowd that has become acutely aware of their role in an NBA courtship?
OK, we all know it won’t be Paul George, so … who??
Durant has to be their first choice. It sounds greedy to want the two best players on the planet on the same team. It also sounds great. The idea of a star leaving a tremendous team might seem crazy, but Durant already walked away from Oklahoma City, and his wanderlust could easily take him away from Golden State. He reportedly turned down James this summer in an invitation to join him here, but the Lakers will look like a vastly different team next summer.
And, really, even though Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP, the Warriors will always be Steph Curry’s team. If Durant comes to the Lakers in a season in which James will turn 35 and has only been here one season, Durant can begin the task of making it his team.
Leonard would be their second choice, and probably their best bet. They’ll be closely monitoring his physical condition in Toronto this winter, but if he’s overcome his leg issues and is the same Leonard who was a Finals MVP for the San Antonio Spurs, he would be a perfect complement to James.
Leonard has professed a desire to play here, but, um … see Paul George. Besides, here’s guessing the Lakers would get real competition from the Clippers, where the shy Leonard could play in relative peace.
Then there is Thompson, who would be the sentimental choice to come home because his father Mychal is the Lakers’ radio analyst. But recently, Klay told the Bay Area News Group’s Mark Medina that, “I would like to be a Warrior for life.’’
Butler would be a good choice, but possibly a risky one, as he underwent knee surgery last season and has endured several seasons of high usage.
As for Cousins, even if he returns and plays well for the Warriors at the end of the upcoming season, the Lakers should be wary of anyone coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon. Haven’t they ridden that roller coaster once already?
There likely will be other top free agents who emerge by next summer. The key point is that the Lakers will now have a year to identify them and inspect them and convince them, all of this thanks to the disappearing Luol Deng. In agreeing to the costly buyout, he did more for Lakers fans than if he had ever played.
It turns out, Deng is not only the last vestige of the Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak era, he could also be a key figure in the new era.
Remember a couple of months ago when Magic Johnson said he would resign if he couldn’t “deliver’’ by next summer?
That delivery seems more certain than ever.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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