With Kobe Bryant gone and the team in desperate need of mature leadership, the Los Angeles Lakers are turning to Luol Deng for help on the court and in the locker room.
The Lakers and Deng agreed to a four-year, $72 million contract Saturday, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal cannot be signed until Thursday.
The 31-year-old Deng averaged 12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds for Miami last season. The high-energy forward has made the playoffs seven times, with the Bulls and Heat, and commands immediate respect with his work ethic and ability to relate to teammates.
That's exactly what Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sought to help shape an impressionable roster of intriguing young talent for first-year coach Luke Walton. Those youngsters went wayward last season while Bryant concluded his farewell tour. Deng will now join fellow new signee Timofey Mozgov and holdover Lou Williams to provide veteran stability.
The Lakers finished at 17-65, the worst record in the franchise's proud history, and were plagued by salacious headlines and speculation over how the players responded to the old-school leadership from Bryant and former coach Byron Scott.
And the core of the team — D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. — got only younger last month when the Lakers drafted 19-year-old Duke forward Brandon Ingram with the second overall pick. Deng is a fellow Blue Devil, and both players are 6-foot-9.
Kupchak entered free agency with a huge amount of salary cap room, but little hope of attracting top free agents determined to win championships now. Instead, the Lakers hoped to place an experienced supporting cast around Russell, Ingram, Randle and Clarkson. Clarkson agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal Friday to stay with the team as a restricted free agent.
"I think history tells you that a bunch of young guys on a team is probably not a good thing," Kupchak said last month. "They look around for leadership and advice from somebody who's been through this a couple of times, and if there's nobody to talk to, then they really don't know how to handle the situation. So I think we will look to add some veteran leadership, and hopefully not only leadership, but guys who can help us win games."
A few minutes after free agency opened, the Lakers committed $64 million over the next four years to Mozgov, the 7-1 Russian who mostly sat on Cleveland's bench during the Cavaliers' championship run this summer. Mozgov doesn't seem an obvious fit for Walton's up-tempo approach, but the Lakers value his size, defense and experience.
Although Deng finished last season with his lowest scoring average since his rookie year in Chicago in 2004-05, he is a hard-nosed defensive forward who can play multiple positions and deliver solid offense. He is also known for his diligence in practice, a quality that can only help this team.
For the third straight summer, the glitzy Lakers have been on the outside looking in as the biggest names on the free-agent market have taken meetings and agreed to deals.
They never got a meeting with Kevin Durant, while Los Angeles native DeMar DeRozan chose to stay in Toronto. Al Horford appears to be headed elsewhere, and the Lakers failed to attract Nicolas Batum or former Lakers forward Kent Bazemore before closing their pursuit of Deng.
That's why the Lakers didn't hesitate to go to a fourth year on the big contract for Deng. He will be entering his 13th season, but has proved durable during his career with the Bulls, Cavaliers and Heat. And he had several other suitors lining up for a crack at him, including Tom Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach now with the Minnesota Timberwolves.