The ghosts of the Lakers’ past don’t haunt the franchise as much as they establish high standards for success. Jerry West is the logo of the league. Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal have statues outside Staples Center. So does Elgin Baylor and Chick Hearn.
Be a legend like them and see your number in the rafters. Be a legend like Luol Deng, though, and you’ll have to settle for dealing your old team a brutal loss — with the added pain of the Lakers still having more than $14 million of your salary still counting against the salary cap.
Deng, one of the free-agent signings that ultimately led to the firing of former general manager Mitch Kupchak, made a surprise cameo in the second half of Minnesota’s 120-105 win in Los Angeles, entering the game to a smattering of boos.
See, Deng’s place in Lakers lore isn’t as fondly celebrated as others who wore the team’s iconic colors.
In summer 2016, the Lakers gave Deng four years and $72 million. He played in 57 games for the team — including just one last season.
The team agreed to buy out the remaining $36.8 million on his deal; Deng gave $7.5 million back to become a free agent.
New surroundings haven’t been much better for Deng, a former two-time All-Star who once carried one of the heaviest workloads in the NBA while he played for the Chicago Bulls.
“I came here to play,” Deng said. “I knew I could still play the game even though the circumstances of what I’ve been through the last couple of years. I still knew I could play. And I knew what my role was going to be and I accepted it.”
His role in Minnesota, though, has been to wait.
Before Thursday, he made just one three against 39 DNPs (did not play). Of his eight appearances earlier in the season, six came in games decided by 27 points or more.
But he’s done his best to stay ready, to prepare for the right moment. And Thursday, the moment couldn’t have been much more right.
Minnesota interim coach Ryan Saunders dusted Deng off the Timberwolves bench in the third quarter.
At the time, the game was close (the Timberwolves led by one) and Deng promptly gave up an easy layup to the player who easily usurped his place with the Lakers — Brandon Ingram.
Then, Deng did somethings Lakers fans never got to see enough of at Staples Center — he got hot.
On the possession immediately after the score, Deng got to the corner in front of the Lakers’ bench and hit a three-point shot. He then scored on a layup and added a dunk.
It was seven points in less than four minutes. The last time he scored seven points at Staples Center was nearly two years ago, in a game in which he played nearly 31 minutes.
“It felt good,” he admitted, though he really tried to not make it about him and his former team.
“I tried not to make this me against them,” Deng said. “For me, this was really about the Timberwolves coming here and needing a win. … I tried to clear my mind from all of that. What happened here happened.”
What happened Thursday is that Deng, a former albatross on the Lakers’ books, grabbed the final rebound of the night, dribbling out the clock until the Lakers lost for the ninth time in their last 14 games, putting them 11/2 games back in the race for the last spot in the Western Conference.
“You have to be happy for him, the way he played and the way he gave a spark,” Saunders said. “…We don’t win that game without Luol.”