How six former Lakers found their way back to Los Angeles

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 19, 2021

All of them left the Lakers. And all six of them came back to Los Angeles. One of them is back for a second time. One took a decade to return. Four of them were champions with the franchise. All of them had unfinished business in L.A. Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka took the sentiment "once a Laker, always a Laker" quite literally this offseason, using primarily Lakers alumni to pad the roster around his revamped Big Three.

With all six players signed to veteran minimum ornon-guaranteed deals, a realistic assessment of the returnees could simply be "you get what you pay for." However, the Lakers' championship chances could hinge on the production of these role players come playoff time nearly as much as it does the guys signed to max contracts.

Here's a roll call of the purple and gold's prodigal sons.

Dwight Howard

- Tenure with Lakers: 2012-13, 2019-20

- Averages with Lakers: 12.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 145 games

What happened the first (and second) time around?

As awkward as Howard's first stint with the team was, his second go-around with the franchise more than made up for it. Back in 2012, the 27-year-old Howard was supposed to be the next great center in the Lakers' long line of legendary big men. But after a season of infighting with Kobe Bryant and then-head coach Mike D'Antoni, combined with physical setbacks stemming from back surgery and a torn labrum in his shoulder, he bolted for Houston despite the Lakers' desperate billboard campaign to keep him. After unremarkable stops in Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he returned in 2019 with a narrower skill set that fit perfectly into Frank Vogel's defense-first approach. Perhaps his greatest feat? Neutralizing Denver's Nikola Jokic with his physical play in the 2020 Western Conference finals, adding to an already Hall of Fame-worthy résumé with his first NBA title.

Why did Howard leave?

No one is quite sure. Could be impatience on Howard's part. Could be poor communication on the Lakers' part. Howard came back to the Lakers on a non-guaranteed deal in '19, telling the team that he preferred to earn his way onto the roster. After filling his role with aplomb, both sides had mutual interest in a return. But either the Lakers were slow to make Howard a formal offer or Howard was recruited away by Philadelphia's Joel Embiid -- or both -- and he spent last season with the Sixers.

Why is Howard back (again)?

"What brought me back to the Lakers?" Howard said, repeating the question during his (re)introductory news conference last month. "Love for the game, love for this city, love for the team and just [the] opportunity to win, you know?" Simple enough.

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

Howard will be tasked with being Davis' bodyguard once again and providing a key defensive presence. He was missed along with JaVale McGee last season in the Lakers' big man rotation that featured Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.

Rajon Rondo

- Tenure with Lakers: 2018-20

- Averages with Lakers: 8.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 94 games

What happened the first time around?

Rondo came to Los Angeles with LeBron James in 2018, and after missing the playoffs, they paired together as the Lakers' primary playmakers on their way to the championship in the Orlando bubble. While his first go-round was marred by injuries -- including fracturing his right thumb during practice following the league's restart in the summer of 2020 -- he was a stud on the Lakers' road to the title, averaging 8.9 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 40% from 3.

Why did Rondo leave?

He got paid. Coming off the championship, the Atlanta Hawks offered him a two-year, $15 million deal to provide veteran leadership to a team that needed it. Los Angeles, already above the cap, used its mid-level exception to sign Harrell and could offer Rondo only a veteran minimum deal to stay.

Why is Rondo back?

"We didn't get our parade," Rondo said during his first comments to the media after clearing waivers and rejoining the team. "I obviously want a parade here in L.A." Indeed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 NBA champions didn't get to enjoy the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy.The Lakers monitored informal workouts with other free-agent point guards this offseason, with Rondo ultimately landing a contract after reaching a buyout with Memphisbecause of his experience and prior relationships.

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

Rondo will be a coach on the floor -- and on the bench -- shouldering the ballhandling responsibilities with Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker when James and Russell Westbrook aren't on the court.

Trevor Ariza

- Tenure with Lakers: 2007-09

- Averages with Lakers: 8.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 106 games

What happened the first time around?

Ariza was just 22 years old when he first joined the Lakers in 2007, and in his second season played all 82 games, then literally stole away the Denver Nuggets' momentum in the Western Conference finals with two game-sealing swipes. Ariza meshed well alongside Bryant, giving the Lakers two solid defenders on the wings who could turn steals and deflections into fast-break opportunities.

Why did Ariza leave?

The Lakers used their cap space in the 2009 offseason to sign Ron Artest, prompting Ariza to sign a five-year, $33 million deal with the Houston Rockets team that Artest had just departed. Los Angeles went on to repeat as champions, while Ariza carved out a solid 3-and-D career with the Rockets, Hornets, Wizards, Suns, Kings, Blazers and Heat.

Why is Ariza back?

"Russ got traded, and 20 minutes after he got traded, he was on my phone," Ariza said, detailing the recruiting effort by his fellow former UCLA Bruins teammate. There have been several times when Ariza was on the Lakers' radar in recent years. This time the interest was mutual.

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

Shooting and defense -- critical for a team that looks to have little of either -- and providing backup minutes at small forward and shooting guard. At 36, the Lakers will have to manage his workload, but the 17-year-vet is coming off a season with the Heat in which he averaged 9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and shot 35% from 3 in 28 minutes.

Kent Bazemore

- Tenure with Lakers: 2013-14

- Averages with Lakers: 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 23 games

What happened the first time around?

Much like new teammate Wayne Ellington, Bazemore enjoyed a first stint in L.A. that was good for him personally (he averaged 13.1 points, which remains his career best) but not so good for the team (the Lakers went 27-55) as injuries ravaged the roster.

Why did Bazemore leave?

Although Bazemore performed well in his 23-game debut in Los Angeles, the franchise renounced his rights to clear cap space in its free-agency pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, who ultimately re-signed with the New York Knicks. Bazemore then signed a two-year, $4 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks and turned that into a four-year, $70 million extension in 2016.

Why is Bazemore back?

"The Lakers were very, very persistent," Bazemore said. "I heard from Mr. Pelinka and Coach Vogel a ton over the first couple hours of the evening once free agency started. So they really brought an amazing energy to the table. It really felt like I had a place on that roster to really make a difference."

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

Defense. Even though Bazemore is entering his 10th NBA season, the 32-year-old is among the younger players on the roster. He'll be asked to reciprocate the "amazing energy" the Lakers' brass brought to their recruiting effort., making up for the ball-hawking presence on defense that L.A. lost with the departures of Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Wayne Ellington

- Tenure with Lakers: 2014-15

- Averages with Lakers: 10.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 37.0 3P% in 65 games

What happened the first time around?

Ellington had the unenviable distinction of having a pretty good season for a very bad Lakers team in 2014-15. He averaged 10.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 37% from 3, but Los Angeles went just 21-61, the team's worst record in history to that point.

Why did Ellington leave?

He signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets, joining what was his sixth team in his seven years in the league at that point.

Why is Ellington back?

"[Pelinka] told me how he thought I could help this team, and told me that he had tried to get me in the past and it didn't work out," Ellington said. "And to be honest, it didn't really take a lot, because I had already looked at the team and I saw and I felt that I could really help in a lot of ways."

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

Potentially to be their starting shooting guard. With a career 38.2% mark from 3, Ellington provides a viable floor spacer to keep defenses honest when James and Westbrook look to attack the paint.

Avery Bradley

- Tenure with Lakers: 2019-20

- Averages with Lakers: 8.6 points, 1.3 3FGM and 1.3 assists in 49 games

What happened the first time around?

The Lakers added Bradley with one of their final roster spots in the summer of 2019 as they looked to build their team with defensive-minded players surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Bradley's worth was proved in his absence during an early-season injury, when coach Frank Vogel created the "Avery Challenge," to test his team to reach certain defensive metrics that Bradley's presence would usually help them meet. While he received a ring for his contributions to the team, he was not with the Lakers when they won the championship in Orlando, Florida. He opted out of the bubble because of family health concerns.

Why did Bradley leave?

He originally signed a two-year deal worth $9.7 million to come to the Lakers with a player option and opted out of the $5 million for Year 2 to sign a far more lucrative one-year deal with the Miami Heat for $11.6 million. Bradley, who contracted COVID-19 and never found his footing with the Heat, was dealt from Miami to the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline and finished the season with the Rockets before hitting free agency.

Why is Bradley back?

Bradley competed for a roster spot on the Golden State Warriors at training camp and even declared during his time there, "I think I might be the best on-ball defender in the NBA." They waived the 11-year veteran before the season started. The Lakers, which held their 15th and final roster spot open to give themselves flexibility should an opportunity arise, picked Bradley up off the waiver wire and signed him to a non-guaranteed contract, sources told ESPN.

What the Lakers are expecting of him in 2021-22

With Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker sidelined with injuries to start the season, Bradley gives L.A. a trusted wing defender Vogel can go to. Sources said that Bradley's familiarity with Vogel's schemes, having been part of the program so recently, will allow him to assimilate quickly without needing the reps at camp to fit in. Considering the deal is non-guaranteed, Bradley will have a shot to impress in the short term, but should the Lakers' wings get healthy, they can move on from Bradley and reopen the 15th spot.

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