Lakers: Should L.A. Bring Back Any 2021-22 Free Agents?

Let’s break down the candidates!

Your Los Angeles Lakers currently have just 11 players signed to their 15-man standard roster. In addition, they have two players inked to non-guaranteed deals in Austin Reaves, who will almost certainly be locked in, and Wenyen Gabriel, whose return seems more likely now that L.A. has offloaded Stanley Johnson to the Utah Jazz.

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The club has both available two-way slots filled on its roster, having signed two intriguing undrafted prospects: promising guard Scotty Pippen Jr. out of Vanderbilt (son of Scottie, even though they spell the nickname differently for whatever reason) and forward Cole Swider out of Syracuse. Pippen and Swider will split their time between the Lakers and the club’s NBA G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

Gabriel was initially signed to a two-way contract after the Lakers waived Jay Huff. The team opted to convert his deal to a standard contract following a productive March 2022 run with L.A. Depending on whether or not the team retains Gabriel (which, again, feels probable), L.A. has two to three available openings on its standard roster. 

It’s possible that one of the Lakers’ three training camp invitees (Fabian White, Javante McCoy, and former two-way player Jay Huff) breaks through and makes the cut. It’s also possible that the Lakers are leaving some roster space open as they try to maneuver for a Russell Westbrook trade that could bring back multiple players in exchange for his single massive contract.

But it’s also possible that the Lakers could look to bring back several current free agents from the team’s ill-fated 2021-22 roster. Let’s examine some of the candidates, shall we?

D.J. Augustin, Point Guard

Should Augustin return, the Lakers would sport three point guards aged 34 or older by mid-November, when Augustin turns 35 and Westbrook turns 34. Patrick Beverley is the third, and the only one who seems very likely to be with the Lakers through the end of the year.

Augustin was signed by L.A. off waivers in March after the Rajon Rondo reunion fell apart, and proved to be a valuable bench addition in limited minutes (17.8 a night), averaging 5.3 points on a very efficient 45.3% field goal conversion rate (including 42.6% on 3.2 looks from three-point land). As currently constructed, the Lakers would most likely start a backcourt tandem of Patrick Beverley at the point and mid-level signing Lonnie Walker IV at shooting guard. Rumors began to swirl after the Beverley trade that Westbrook would most likely either be traded or sent away from the team, possibly even before training camp. 

Westbrook would make some sense as a primary back-up with an excellent handle and solid rebounding instincts should he stick around, but barring that, Austin Reaves and Kendrick Nunn (if healthy) seem most likely to be L.A.’s first options off the bench at guard. Rookie draft pick Max Christie could play sparingly. Augustin may be a more reliable option than Christie, but it seems like L.A. is fairly set at guard should Nunn be able to play. Augustin could make sense for minimum-salaried depth in the event of an injury. 

If the Lakers are able to swing a deal that sends Westbrook to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Buddy Hield and power forward/center Myles Turner, it would completely eradicate any need for the 5’11” veteran point guard. 

Avery Bradley, Combo Guard

As one of the few players older than 30 with some ability on both sides of the ball, Bradley became almost an emotional security blanket in ex-head coach Frank Vogel’s backcourt rotation last season. He even started for 45 games! On a team that thought it could win the title! Insane.

The 6’3″ guard out of UT – Austin proved to be another effective contributor in limited minutes, averaging 22.7 a night. He logged 6.4 points a game on .423/.390/.889 shooting splits, while pulling down 2.2 rebounds and intersecting 0.9 steals. Like Augustin, the 31-year-old Bradley seems expendable given the team’s current roster, but proved productive enough even in his dotage to possibly be considered as an injury replacement for one of the club’s current guards.

Wayne Ellington, Shooting Guard

Yet another 34-year-old Lakers guard? Yikes. Ellington, formerly a solid 3-and-D wing role player, had a rough second tour of duty in L.A. last season, and was more or less out of the team’s rotation by February. He did make some cameo appearances as the rest of the Lakers’ very, very old lineup got hurt later on in the season.

The 6’4″ journeyman shooting guard, a 2009 NCAA champ while with the University of North Carolina, averaged 6.7 points and 1.8 rebounds for L.A. when he did play (in 18.8 minutes a night), and nailed 38.9% of his 4.9 triples a night, but suited up for just 43 games. But his defense has fallen off a cliff. He makes less sense as a fit than Augustin, who has a better handle, and Bradley, who can still shoot and remains a better defender.

Mason Jones, Shooting Guard

The 24-year-old Jones, a 6’4″ shooting guard out of Patrick Beverley’s alma matter the University of Arkansas, joined the Lakers on a two-way contract in December, and appeared in just four games for Los Angeles, averaging 6.8 points, 2.5 boards and 1.0 dimes across 12.8 minutes a night.

Jones did suit up for L.A.’s 2022 Summer League team in Las Vegas, but failed to secure an Exhibit 10 contract to compete for a roster spot in training camp. Center Jay Huff, another 2021-22 two-way player, did score an invite. During his 12 games with the Lakers’ NBAGL affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, Jones did post some enticing stats. With South Bay, Jones averaged 17.8 points on .496/.412/.813 shooting splits, while passing for 7.1 assists, pulling down 6.5 rebounds, and swiping 1.1 steals a night. 

It’s possible he returns to South Bay this season as a G League affiliate player, but there does not seem to be much interest in Jones getting a spot on the standard roster for now.

Carmelo Anthony, Power Forward

Anthony seems like the most likely candidate to actually return to the Lakers, should the former 10-time All-Star even deign to do so in what will be his 20th NBA season. The 38-year-old vet out of Syracuse proved to be one of the few 2021 free agent additions who actually met or exceeded pre-season expectations for what he could contribute.

Though the former small forward standout, an NBA 75th Anniversary honoree, has now become a one-way player, he has fully bought into his role as a stretch four, and had some enjoyable moments while with L.A., especially in the first few months of the season.

Through 69 games mostly as a reserve, Anthony averaged 13.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 steals a night. He also connected on 44.1% of his 10.5 shots from the field, including nailing an above-average 37.% of his triples on volume (5.8 attempts). He also connected on a solid 83% of his charity stripe looks. Given Anthony’s advanced mileage, it’s hard to say when his production will completely crumble, but if he can be last year’s vintage this season, he’d be a good fit for a 2022-23 Lakers team that is currently starving for good shooters.

At least one rival GM thinks that ‘Melo will return in the Purple and Gold this year alongside his fellow 2003 draftee and longtime buddy LeBron James. That same source also considered a New York Knicks reunion a possibility for Anthony, and mentioned that the 6’7″ vet could consider joining the veteran-laden squads of the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors if he’d like to ring-chase.

Dwight Howard, Center

It’s pretty ironic that, nine years removed from the days of billboards pleading for Dwight Howard to stick around as an unrestricted free agent during his first, less-than-optimal season (the “This Is Going To Be Fun” era) with the Lakers, he seems very likely to end his Hall of Fame career irrationally hoping that L.A. sees fit to bring him back. As an energetic, rim-rolling center with plenty of athleticism and defense to spare during the 2019-20 season, Howard was an extremely important bench cog on what wound up being a championship team. 

Howard, famously never much of a locker room guy, wanted to reunite with the Lakers the next season, but the team cooled, looking to Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and eventually Andre Drummond to replace Howard and JaVale McGee. When that didn’t take, Howard returned to the fold for the 2021-22 season. He had lost a step, and though he clearly outplayed DeAndre Jordan (who, perhaps thanks to being a beloved teammate, got a primo gig as Nikola Jokic’s backup in Denver this summer), the 36-year-old former three-time Defensive Player of the Year was just not the 2019-20 era Dwight anymore. 

Across 60 games (including 27 starts) last season, Howard averaged career lows in points (6.2 per game, albeit on an excellent 61.2% from the floor), rebounds (5.9), and minutes (16.2).  His 0.6 blocks a night also represented a far cry below his career average of 1.8, though they were not his all-time lowest — that would be the 0.4 blocks he averaged in Washington, for whom he played just nine healthy games.

The Lakers’ decision to add at least Thomas Bryant (another former Laker, because L.A. can’t help themselves) and Damian Jones seems to have shut the door on a reunion with the 6’10” center. With a possible deal for Pacers big man Myles Turner in the wings, it seems that Howard’s days in L.A. have come to an end for the third time.

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