Seven Former Lakers Who Could Return as Free Agents

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistJune 7, 2014

Seven Former Lakers Who Could Return as Free Agents

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Just because it has been repeated to death does not mean it’s any less of a fact—the Los Angeles Lakers have a ton of roster holes to deal with.

    Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will be back, and so will Robert Sacre!

    There’s your starting lineup of three—the only players under actual contract for next season. It’s not really quite that dire, of course. The Lakers can make qualifying offers to both Ryan Kelly and Kent Bazemore, thus making them restricted free agents. They also have an option on Kendall Marshall, that modern practitioner of the set shot who showed a legitimate talent for dishing dimes by the boatload this past season.

    The team also has the No. 7 pick in this year’s NBA draft.

    Management will no doubt make liberal use of the veteran minimum salary again this season, as it has become the bread and butter for virtually all teams across the league now—you can thank the recent collective bargaining agreement for the NBA’s current polarization of classes, with fewer players existing in the $3-to-$5 million mid-range band that was once so common.

    With so many questions during this time of the Great Rebuild, perhaps it’s time to consider some of those who have worn the Purple and Gold in the past, and now find themselves unrestricted free agents.

Ramon Sessions

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Ramon Sessions did not have a long reign in Los Angeles—just 23 games, 19 of which were as the team’s starting point guard.

    On March 15, 2012 during the lockout-shortened season, the Lakers traded Jason Kapono, Luke Walton and their 2012 first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Sessions and forward Christian Eyenga.

    The move was supposed to bring an injection of youth, vitality and scoring punch to a veteran team that was then under the coaching leadership of Mike Brown. The experiment never really worked—Sessions’ strengths have always been in the open floor, not in a half-court grinding offense.

    Sessions moved on to the Charlotte Bobcats for most of the next two seasons before being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks where he averaged 15.8 points in 28 games, mostly off the bench.

    The obvious question is how the speedy point guard would fit back in, three years later. The team will likely move back toward a more deliberate pace, but of course, much depends on their choice of a new head coach.

Sasha Vujacic

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    Life has never been quite the same with the Lakers since Sasha “the Machine” Vujacic was traded away to the New Jersey Nets in 2010.

    An excitable player who always tried hard—sometimes too hard, the Slovenian guard got his professional basketball start in the Italian league before being drafted No. 27 by Los Angeles in 2004. Vujacic won two championship rings along the way, primarily coming off the bench. His ability to shoot was never in doubt, although his decisions about when to shoot were sometimes a different matter altogether.

    Still, he was money at the foul line and also played hyper-ferret defense, extremely willingly.

    In fact, one of Vujacic’s endearing qualities was baiting opponents into retaliatory fouls through his relentless arm-waving defense, thus earning the right to the charity stripe.

    That ability payed off in a big way during the final seconds of an epic Game 7, as the Lakers faced the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. Vujacic iced a pair of free throws to clinch the win.

    Vujacic’s productivity went way up after being traded to the Nets—he averaged a career-high 14.4 points over 56 games. During the 2011 lockout, however, he signed with Anadolu Efes in the Turkish league and wound up staying for two seasons.

    A 6’7” combo guard, Vujacic never quite fulfilled the promise the Lakers saw in him, yet he was still an important part of the roster, earning a three-year, $15 million extension in 2008.

    He returned to the U.S. last summer, trying for an NBA comeback. At the time, Arash Markazi of ESPNLA tweeted the following update: “Sasha Vujacic is back in LA and has been in touch with the Lakers. Source said he'll be in NBA next season and Lakers are his top choice.”

    Alas, it wasn’t to be. The Machine only got as far as a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s currently back overseas again, playing for Reyer Venezia Mestre in the Italian league.

Shannon Brown

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Shannon Brown has been with seven teams in eight NBA seasons. Just slightly over two of those seasons were with the Lakers, both of which resulted in championship rings—2009 and 2010. Those were also the only 82-game seasons of Brown’s career.

    A 6’4” shooting guard, Brown has always been about the hops, which were on full display in Los Angeles and also during two subsequent seasons with the Phoenix Suns.

    This past season, however, Brown was part of a trade to the Washington Wizards in which Marcin Gortat was the key Suns component. Brown was subsequently waived, and he sat and waited, until finally getting picked up by the San Antonio Spurs for a couple of 10-day contracts in February. The Spurs declined to take the deal any further than that.

    At the end of February, Brown received another pair of 10-day contracts, this time from the New York Knicks who ultimately extended him for the rest of the season. He played 19 games in New York, averaging just 2.1 points in 7.8 minutes off the bench.

    The Knicks went through a significant management shift during that same period, with Phil Jackson signing on as the new president and head of basketball operations. Brown spoke glowingly about his past history with the hoops icon, per Peter Botte for the New York Daily News:

    He's real laid back. He told me to go out there and play basketball, first coach that ever told me that. Every other coach was like, 'Don't do this, don't do that, don't do this.' He was like, 'go out there and play basketball.' I appreciated that. He had a formula, man, and it worked from the East Coast to the West Coast.

    Will Jackson bring Brown back next season? Who knows—they don’t even have a coach in place yet. Then again, neither do the Lakers. Does Brown still have something to contribute in Los Angeles? Given that he was still playing at the top of his game just a year ago with the Suns, the answer is probably yes.

Trevor Ariza

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Trevor Ariza hits summer free agency, hot on the heels of an impressive season with the Washington Wizards who made it to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2005.

    The Wizards would love to bring Ariza back. But what about the Lakers? After all, the product of Westchester High and UCLA won an NBA championship with the Purple and Gold in 2009. At the end of that season, however, his agent was unable to reach terms with Lakers management—Ariza wound up with the Houston Rockets, essentially switching places with Metta World Peace who left Houston to sign with L.A. at a discount.

    Ariza, who is 6’8” with a 7’2” wingspan, is a legitimate defensive stopper and is routinely asked to guard the other team’s best player. As teammate Bradley Beal said this season, per Carla Peay for D.C. Pressbox: "That's what Trev's known to do. He's our best defender. We always put him on the top gun on the other team.”

    The versatile small forward has led a nomadic basketball journey, playing on six teams in 10 seasons. He’ll be one of the more sought-after free agents in a fairly weak class this summer and will likely command a solid, though not exorbitant salary—he earned $7,727,280 this season in Washington.

    Ariza was a popular player in Los Angeles and was also close with Kobe Bryant. On the other hand, Lakers management is guarding its purse strings zealously, hoping to make a run at an elite free agent like Kevin Love during the summer of 2015.

    The Lakers won’t find themselves back in playoff contention in the Western Conference however, if they simply load up on cheap deals and short contracts for this coming season.

Earl Clark

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    Earl Clark played just part of one season with the Lakers, but it was arguably the best basketball of what is still a young but surprisingly byzantine NBA journey.

    Drafted with the No. 14 pick by the Phoenix Suns in 2009, Clark has played for five teams over as many seasons.

    The 6’10” combo forward was traded from Phoenix to the Orlando Magic during his sophomore year and ultimately became part of the multi-team trade that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers.

    Clark wasn’t initially considered to be much more than filler in the blockbuster transaction, but wound up starting 36 games in 59 appearances, averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. The numbers weren’t eye-opening, but his play in general was a pleasant surprise.

    As James Herbert wrote for SB Nation, Clark emerged as a bright spot during a dark season for the Lakers:

    Since the story this season is a supposed super-team's shocking struggles, Clark won't make many headlines. The 6'10 forward will, however, make defensive rebounders account for him. He'll make offensive players uncomfortable. He'll make his minutes count on a team where larger-than-life stars sometimes seem invisible.

    Clark was a hard worker when he got the chance to play, showing the kind of swingman versatility that created a level of anticipation for the future. However, he left during free agency at the end of the season, signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    As it turned out, the Cavs dealt Clark to the Philadelphia 76ers for Spencer Hawes at the February trade deadline. Clark was waived by the 76ers before he ever played a game. He was subsequently signed to a couple of 10-day contracts with the New York Knicks but was not picked up for the remainder of the season.

    It’s hard to succeed in the NBA when you’re constantly on the move. It’s even more difficult for a young player who is still developing. Clark has size and ability, but needs an extended opportunity with a team if he’s ever going to become a consistently productive player.

Andrew Goudelock

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Andrew Goudelock has played only 48 games in the NBA, all for the Los Angeles Lakers. After being selected with the No. 46 pick in the 2011 draft, the 6’2” combo guard out of the College of Charleston appeared in 40 regular-season games plus four playoff appearances as a rookie.

    The following season he appeared just four times in a Lakers uniform. Those games were something of an anomaly. Goudelock was waived during training camp in October 2012, and went on to play in the D-League for the Sioux Falls Skyforce and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He was called up in April after Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon.

    Goudelock appeared in the final game of the regular season and in three first-round playoff appearances against the San Antonio Spurs, two of which were as a starter.

    It’s worth stating that Goudelock is a shooter—this is a guy who is both quiet yet confident. He was an undersized underdog from the moment he was selected in the second round, and yet he found support from some major stars in Los Angeles.

    Per Dave McMenamin for ESPNLA, Kobe Bryant dubbed Goudelock the “Mini Mamba” and voiced support for an undersized shooting guard who was being asked to run the point during his rookie season:

    He’s doing what he does best. I don’t think it’s been a matter of him being aggressive, it’s been a matter of us putting him in positions to be successful and not expecting him to completely change his game. He hasn’t been a point guard his whole career, so why start now? We drafted him for a reason and that’s for him to score the ball and that’s what he’s doing.

    Pau Gasol also had praise for the young guard’s determination: "It is impressive because it takes a certain kind of character, or personality to be able to accept that challenge and just go for it and understand that you have enough to belong and to be part of an NBA team or one of the top teams in the NBA, for that matter.”

    After the playoffs ended in 2013, Goudelock followed the path of so many NBA exiles, heading overseas and signing a one-year deal with UNICS Kazan in the Russian league. This past April, he was named the VTB United League MVP after averaging 20.1 points for the season. He is now a free agent once again.

    It may be time to bring the Mini Mamba home to the Lakers.

Andrew Bynum

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Casting a giant shadow wherever he goes, former Lakers center Andrew Bynum is on the loose again.

    After not playing a single game in 2012-13 for the Philadelphia 76ers, the oft-injured big man suited up and hit the floor for two teams this season—the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers. He was also technically signed to the Chicago Bulls for a few hours before being waived.

    It has been a strange couple of years for a player who was a dominant force in the league as recently as the 2011-12 season. Still just 26 years old, Bynum was the No. 10 pick for the Lakers in 2005—a raw 17-year-old straight out of high school, with tremendous size and potential.

    And, questionable knees. That has been Bynum’s curse—along with an often diffident attitude.

    Two summers ago, after his best statistical season in the NBA by far, Bynum was part of a four-team blockbuster trade that sent Andre Iguodala to Denver, with Dwight Howard exiting Orlando and entering an ill-fated one-year courtship with the Lakers.

    Bynum went from a season average of 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to sitting on the Philadelphia bench in street clothes, unable to play due to chronic pain and swelling in his knees. 

    And then came the comeback attempts as he signed with the Cavaliers, playing 24 games before being traded to the Bulls where he was promptly waived. He most recently signed with the Pacers, playing just two games before being cut. He averaged 8.7 points and 5.6 boards over those 26 games.

    There has never been any question that Bynum has serious knee issues—the multiple surgeries, shortened seasons and limited minutes have been a constant reminder. Still, his championship career crashed to earth shockingly fast. Is there any reason to think that he could, in fact, still have something left to offer?

    There were some hopeful signs this past season, including the last game of his brief stint with the Pacers in which he scored 15 points and pulled down nine boards in just 20 minutes. If he tries for another comeback it won’t be for the money—he’s earned around $80 million during his nine years in the league.

    Bynum was recently questioned by a determined TMZ photographer at LAX airport. The former NBA champion allowed that he’d like to return to the Lakers but when asked if he can return to his old form, answered, “I don’t think so.”

    The truth of course, is that free agency prognostications should not be settled by paparazzi in an airport parking garage.

    The idea of Bynum providing some needed backcourt depth and strength in Los Angeles may be a pipedream, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it could happen.