Luol Deng on short Lakers stint: 'I never said I didn’t want to play'
Much has been written about Luol Deng’s contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Deng signed a four-year, $72M deal with the Lakers in 2016, but played just 57 games with the team over two seasons. He inked the contract right after Kobe Bryant retired, but the Lakers leaned toward a youth movement despite signing Deng, and the veteran forward was relegated to the bench.
Deng retired from the NBA in 2019; however, due to his contract's cap hold, the Lakers had to stretch his deal after waiving him in Sept. 2018. This was done so that the team would have cap flexibility to be able to sign LeBron James over that offseason.
As a result, the Lakers have been paying him every year since, including $4.9 million this season, which continuously raises a lot of eyebrows. In fact, Deng’s earnings in retained salary are around the same amount this season as DeAndre Jordan, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard, who will be making a combined $5,007,534.
Instead of listening to rumors that have been swirling since 2016 — accusations of taking the money and laying down or quitting on the team — I simply asked Luol to explain what exactly happened during his stint in L.A. Luol discussed this and much more on the latest episode of "The Rematch."
Etan Thomas: You alluded to it, so we can discuss it now. You went to Miami, and you went to Cleveland. But then, you went to the Lakers in 2016 and you signed up for a four-year, $72 million contract. And then, they didn't really play you. It was weird. It wasn't like you were hurt. You could [play], correct? I'm telling your story like I know. You tell. Were you hurt, or was it they just didn't play you?
You looked fine all before. It's like you were just sitting there just ready to go. And you had a good attitude. They didn't try to say that you were a problem. Everybody spoke very highly of you. They just didn't play you. So everybody was like, "Well, y'all just signed him to this big contract. Why wouldn't you play him?" Tell me, what was going on?
Luol Deng: "I think the people that were there, they will always know. I swear to you Etan, I worked so hard there, but it just didn't work out. When I first got there, the idea was I'm a bit older now, not even that old at the time, but we have a young team. We need you to play. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to get these guys right. We need to do this. And I said okay. I was convinced.
"But just to set this story straight, because everyone thinks I just went for the money. I had the same offer from Utah, and I had almost this closer offer from the Wizards. And I took the Lakers because I felt that what they pitched to me sounded better than what everyone else pitched to me at the time. So I wanted to go there and be a part of it. As I got there, right away, I knew we had a young team, and I was okay with that. I said, 'I'll play my role until we get going.' And the pitch was we're going to be better each year.
"I knew that they wanted to move some pieces, some young pieces, but they had to showcase them. So the first year, what happened was we moved from trying to make the playoffs to we are developing. We are a young team. And I sat down with the organization halfway during the season. A new GM came in and everything. So they sat me down and said, 'Look, we're going to go young. We're gonna play the young guys. We need your leadership. We need you to mentor them. And next year, we have a chance. We're not going to have a chance this year, but we want to really be competitive and get these guys to catch up to speed.'
"And I was like, 'Alright. Cool.' Never missed a practice. Never missed anything. The next year, that summer, I worked as hard as I can. And I came in, I was in shape. I was ready to play, and I thought that we're going to get going. We're going to get to playing. As you remember, I played the first game. The first game of the season. I played maybe 15 minutes, 14 minutes. I had two points. I got yanked out. I didn't play. So it was fine. It was the first game.
"Right away from the first game, the decision was made that we're going to play the young guys again. So I was like, 'Okay, so what's the situation here?' So they're like, 'No, we're going to play the young guys. We're going to try to trade you,' this and this. So okay, how are you going to trade all this money without me actually playing? Everyone thinks I'm hurt or something happened or whatever. I can't showcase nothing.
"And so it's like, 'Okay, this is what we're going to do. We're going to try move you.' Try to move me, try to move me. I don't blame anyone why. Even if I'm a GM, I'm not moving for someone who hasn't played with all the money. Why would I? So the strategy wasn't right.
"But I always felt, okay, if I'm in the organization, and this is what I was telling you earlier, I had a mindset of just — be respectful, do the right thing, and get on. The people that are close to you is who matters and who needs to know.
"I didn't care about anything else outside. So the strategy wasn't right. So just kept going. Couldn't move me. Couldn't move me. There came a time in the season where they're like, 'Okay, we want you to play.' So I said, 'Okay, no problem. I'm ready to play.'
"So they said, 'Okay, we're going to just put you in. You've got to jump in with the team. Get more reps and everything.' So I started jumping in, getting more reps, getting ready and everything. Then, I was called upstairs. The coach wanted me to play, but the direction wasn't going that way. Because I was going to be playing, and they wanted these young guys to play. So then again, the decision was made right there, after three weeks of training and working out that, 'Okay, you're not going to play.'
"So at that point, I just got up. I said, 'You guys just let me know. I'm not going to skip no practice, no nothing.' All year again, I went the whole year; the whole year I was in the locker room. I worked out. I never missed a practice. I trained. Everything.
"And then it started becoming obvious to everyone that this is a big organization. So what everyone started focusing on was, 'Oh, he's getting paid all this money. And he's just staying there, whatever.' And then know, as an athlete and somebody who's crafted their skill for so many years, there comes a time where you're just like, 'Okay, this is the image that you're portraying me as now. I've never been this guy.' But I'm like, 'Okay. It is what it is. I'm just going to do what's right.'
"So then came the summer. And that's the year, actually, when they moved some pieces and LeBron came on the team. When LeBron came on the team at that time, I spoke to whoever was in charge at the time. And I said, 'Look, I'm just going to trust you guys. So let's make something happen here. I'm just going to trust you guys.' So they're like, 'Okay, what's the best way to make something happen?' And I said, 'Let's come to terms with something. I don't care if I have to leave money behind.'
"And everybody's talking about the money that I'm making. I gave a lot of money back to get out of L.A. A lot of other people, they just said, 'Nah, F that. I'm going to stay around. I don't care what, whatever.' And people could post whatever they want to post, but the Lakers were not posting how much I gave them back. But I'm always going to be the guy who just took the money, but I could have been somewhere else with the same money playing. I made a decision to go there [to L.A.], and I never said I don't want to play. They made that decision.
"Even if you don't like the way I play, or even if I'm struggling, there's no way I wasn't good enough to play on that team. No way. And I showed it in practice. I showed it every day. It's a decision that you made that you didn't want me to play. There's a lot of other teams in the league that I could have been playing for. So that's really the situation with that. And that's how it went down."
Etan: Do you think that they put the narrative out there? Because sometimes things, I want to say, "leak," but they're purposely placed. And narratives were out there, but they could have easily cleared it all up. I thought the Lakers organization could have cleared up the false narratives about that you didn't want to play, that you were injured, that you were sitting down, that you didn't... They could have easily cleared that up, but they never did. Did you ever question why they never told exactly what happened while you were in the middle of it happening?
Deng: "I don't think they wanted to. One, I think everybody was trying to protect themself. I think, as a GM, you don't want to explain why you're not playing him. So it's easier to just, okay, whatever you want to put out there, whatever people think. And then as a coach, you are caught in, 'Oh, we want to go young.' You just say, 'Right now, we're focused on the young guys. We want to play the young guys. We got to give them minutes.' So there's always excuses and an outlet.
"But I think what's happening is with social media, and you see it all the time — if you are about the people, or if you really care about individuals or even athletes, or whoever, or you're just on the right side — I like to say the right side of history — I think you always stand with people that you know are trying to do the right thing. Or what you think is the right thing. I think what happens now, people are just so quick never to question their teams.
"And the thing with teams is teams make so much money that, for me, for any person, as they should, the rest of the world — the money that I'm being given is crazy. It a lot of money. To these organizations, that's nothing, and people need to understand that. It's just, 'Play it out there. Go.'
"And people complain about athletes taking off a day, or doing this. 'They're getting paid all this money. Why are they taking off a day?' But fans never actually question teams that tank for a year while your money is being used. But at the end of the day, the owner can tank for a year, and they still get paid. But nobody really says anything about... 'We just paid tickets for this when we are losing just to get a pick.' But you don't question all that money, all that billions that the teams are making, or the owner are making, when they're having a bad season also. It's always the players, and it's the players' fault.
"You have to be okay with that, and you have to move on. But if you ask me, honestly, it was such a blessing the way it went. And I try to explain to people, everything that I'm doing off the court is really a result of everything that I was going through on the court. And you know how it is. We give it so much and playing and the pressure and wanting to perform. They told me I wasn't going to play, so I focused on my business. I focused on other things that I got. I focused on my foundation. And I really think that with God's way, just telling me that, 'You got so many other things going on for you. You can't just dwell and stress on one thing. Take that opportunity and make something else out of it.' And that's really what allowed me to focus on other things."
Etan: And you did an amazing job with it. A lot of people will be hearing this, and haven't heard you tell this story this way ever. They don't know this story. They look at, "Okay. Oh, Luol Deng is still getting paid for the Lakers. How's that possible?" And they tell that story. Or they say, "Oh, he swindled them. How's he still getting?" And I was like, "Yeah, I'm sure there's more to the story than that."
And that's why it's good that now you're telling this because it shapes people's perception of athletes when they're only told one story. And everything that so many guys from all your teams that you've played on, they talk about you in such glowing descriptions. You're this great teammate. And you come work hard, and you do all this. And you help everybody out.
Joakim Noah said he felt like he lost a brother when you left, when you got traded from the Bulls. The way that guys are talking about you, they wouldn't talk about you like that if you were someone who was the media depiction of you. Somebody who just laid down, didn't want to play anymore, got your money. It's completely different. So without even knowing all the details, I knew that there was more to the story. So I'm glad that you told this.