The Lakers’ Nowhere Man plays games nobody sees, on a court that doesn’t exist, in a world nobody understands.
Before every Lakers game at Staples Center this season, Luol Deng shows up on time, sits in front of his corner locker, talks strategy, tells jokes, full of life, the picture of health, preparing as if he is going to play.
But he won’t play. He won’t sit on the bench. He won’t even step on the court. The uniform that hangs crisply and tauntingly in his locker will remain untouched; he instead wears the baggy sweats of one who never leaves the house.
When the Lakers run out for the game, their Nowhere Man retires to a training room to pretend.
Deng watches the game on television and imitates its flow. When there’s action, he runs on a treadmill. When there’s a timeout, he stops. When the whistle blows, he runs again. When the Lakers are playing defense, he slides his feet as if playing imaginary defense.
In honoring an All-Star career that once featured 11 consecutive seasons of 30-plus minutes a game, he stays active in his make-believe game for about 35 minutes, at which point the real game is usually ending. He waits for the buzzer, waits for his teammates to return to the locker room, then slips out into the night, another chance wasted for a 32-year-old body that is not getting any younger.
The Nowhere Man would rather be anywhere but here.
“It sucks,” Deng said. “It’s hard.”
He knows what you’re saying, right now, probably screaming, in wholly unsympathetic astonishment.
“Hard? Are you kidding me? How can getting paid $17.2 million for playing pretend games be hard?”
He hears it every day, on social media, on the streets, and he understands.
“I know what people are thinking,” Deng said. “They’re thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s not playing, but he’s making all this money’ … and I would be thinking the same thing.”
But there’s also a very human price being paid here, the slow chipping away at Deng’s career and his reputation while he is stuck in the oddest of NBA limbos.
The Lakers don’t want the Nowhere Man, but they can’t find a way to get rid of him.
When he signed a four-year, guaranteed $72-million deal in the summer of 2016, Kobe Bryant had just retired and the Lakers were going to use Deng’s veteran skills in an attempt to stay competitive. But midway through his first season, the blueprint was torn up, the front office was shaken up, the decision was made to teach and tank, and Deng no longer was needed.
“I’ve never before seen a guy brought over to make a change, but then there was a different change,” Deng said. “I had no idea I wasn’t going to be part of the plan.”
Last February, five days after Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were dumped and Magic Johnson became basketball boss, Deng played his last meaningful minutes as a Laker. He missed the final 22 games of last season. He made a substitute start on opening night this year, played 13 minutes, scored one basket, and hasn’t played in the 54 games since.
“This is going to be a phase in my career when I look back and wonder, how could this have happened?” Deng said.
He has asked to be traded. They can’t trade him because nobody will take on his salary. He wishes they could cut him. They can’t yet for salary cap reasons, although that could happen this summer. He says they haven’t discussed a buyout, but he has more than $40 million left on his contract, so that wouldn’t work for the Lakers.
So a two-time All-Star with career averages of 15 points and six rebounds — a guy just two seasons removed from a brilliant playoff series for the Miami Heat against the Charlotte Hornets — isn’t allowed to enter games, but also can’t leave.
He’s not part of the team, yet he’s very much part of the team. He never plays a minute, yet he hasn’t missed a game. He hasn’t missed a practice. He’s never skipped a shootaround. He shows up and plays hard in every moment that doesn’t count. He travels with the team, stays with the team, goes to the visiting arenas with the team, where he watches the game from the visiting locker room.
He mentors the younger players, gives veteran input to the coaching staff, serves as a consultant in every moment except the ones that count the most.
“He’s handled his situation with so much class and dignity. He’s somebody you can really look up to,” teammate Kyle Kuzma said.
The rookie then asked was whether he ever imagined any player being in this type of situation. His face went blank.
“No,” he said.
The current freeze was finalized before the season in a meeting with Deng and Lakers officials. It was mutually decided that, instead of playing Deng just a few minutes of garbage time each night, he would just sit out entirely so younger players could get the minutes.
Said Deng: “How am I going to help the team going out there two minutes? If you’re trying to get younger, and you’re not using me to win games, just fill in those minutes with those young guys.”
Said coach Luke Walton: “It was mutually decided that would not be the best road for him.”
Walton echoes his players’ admiration for how Deng has handled the situation.
“We need him to stay involved, stay engaged, and he’s been amazing like that,” Walton said. “He’ll come to me in practice, bringing ideas to me that he’s seen work in other places. He’s helped our younger players — a ton of credit to him.”
Walton knows what people think, but he also knows what he sees.
“People say he makes so much money, he shouldn’t complain, but as a human, living this life isn’t all about the money. You want to play, and he’s not able to play right now,” Walton said. “It would be easier to pout, sulk and complain, but he hasn’t.”
Deng says little, but he hears everything, and sometimes that’s the hardest part. He and Timofey Mozgov became big-contract symbols of the final moves of Buss and Kupchak, yet Mozgov got lucky and was traded, leaving Deng as the last remaining punchline.
In fact, this week, Deng was literally and cheaply turned into a punchline, when Magic Johnson made national headlines at a news conference by actually mocking the idea that any team would want him.
When asked whether they had discussions with anyone about trading Deng, Johnson laughed and said, “We wish, huh? No, that didn’t happen. Thanks, though. You want to make a move for us?’ ”
Standing next to Johnson was general manager Rob Pelinka, who, to his credit, clearly was uncomfortable with the flippant response and jumped to Deng’s defense.
“I’s important to add this, I mean, Luol has been an unbelievable professional and has stayed very positive,” Pelinka said. “He understands the situation, and at some point, we’ll figure out a way to resolve that — that’s a win for him and us.”
Deng surely was stung by Johnson’s words. But he won’t fire back. He never fires back. He is one of the NBA’s great community leaders who is known for many charitable works in his home country of South Sudan, and he has perspective. He’s seen and heard much worse than someone ridiculing a basketball player.
“I know how people think about sports,” he said. “People forget you actually love the game. Once they know how much you make, the humane part has been forgotten.”
That humane part surfaced at Christmas when Deng’s family flew in from London for their traditional holiday celebration, but with one difference. None of his family attended the Lakers’ Christmas Day game at Staples Center against Minnesota.
“My mom loves coming over and watching and supporting, but they felt it would be very hard to come to the game and not even see me anywhere,” he said.
Deng, of course, showed up. He always shows up. Even on Christmas, he played his pretend game on his make-believe court before showering and leaving his locker virtually untouched as always.
The other night before the Lakers’ victory against Oklahoma City, Deng looked at that game’s pristine black uniform hanging there and shook his head with a weary laugh.
“If the Lakers ever sell my jersey after I leave, whoever gets it, a good deal, huh?” the Nowhere Man said, moments before heading off to another pretend game on another empty night. “Never used. Good as new.”