Column: Lakers’ failure to retain Jared Dudley is ‘crazy’ and a huge blow to a title run
He barely played, but his passion could be seen in every play.
He was the last guy on the bench, but the strongest voice in the locker room.
On a veteran team of disparate personalities, he was the glue. Amid a laborious season filled with lulls, he was their muse.
He kept their two superstars aligned, he kept their role players from feeling neglected, and he eventually even helped them win a championship.
Apparently not much.
After being rebuffed in his best efforts to return for a third season — he would have played for a non-guaranteed contract — Dudley suddenly announced this week that he is retiring to accept a job as one of the top assistants for Jason Kidd’s Dallas Mavericks.
And so a summer filled with headline acquisitions ends with a huge loss.
Dudley played a total of 81 minutes last season, but his impact was timeless. He scored a total of 74 points in two seasons, but his intangibles were countless.
“I thought I was coming back to the Lakers,” said Dudley, 36, in a phone interview. “This is crazy.”
Former Lakers forward Jared Dudley is retiring to join the Mavericks’ coaching staff, and LeBron James is going to miss what Dudley brings to the team.
“Congrats to my guy if this true, which [it] probably is! But man!! F—,” tweeted James, later adding, “Excuse my language but still one hurt!! For many reasons you wouldn’t understand.”
James loves him. Anthony Davis loves him. Russell Westbrook wanted him. Overtures by all three were made to the front office. Dudley could have filled one of the three remaining available roster spots. He could have joined the coaching staff. He would have been relatively cheap. They could have cut him anytime.
Yet Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis wouldn’t make room.
While Pelinka was unavailable for comment, Laker officials wanted to convey their deepest respect and admiration for Dudley, who they said will always be part of the Lakers family.
It appears they didn’t want him as a player because they felt that, with their aging team, they need youthful depth. They apparently never discussed the possibility that he would retire and become a coach.
“Obviously LeBron and AD wanted me back,” said Dudley. “But we just couldn’t convince them.”
When Dudley decided he would retire, it didn’t take much to convince Kidd. As a Lakers assistant, Kidd watched Dudley work his back-room magic for both of his seasons here. He snapped him up in about five seconds. Dudley will sit in the front row of the Mavericks’ bench. He will begin a sideline career that will surely end up with him being a head coach somewhere.
That career should be continuing here. He should still be a Laker. Maybe James could have thrown around his weight a little more? Maybe Pelinka could have listened a little closer?
“No one owed me anything, Rob and Kurt were honest and upfront, nothing but respect and gratitude to them and Jeanie [Buss], I will be forever thankful for the opportunity they gave me,” Dudley said. “But I did want to come back. I did think I could help the team, especially having so many new players, but I understand they wanted to get younger.”
Dudley was being kind. It’s difficult to understand how the Lakers would think younger is better than smarter, that age outweighs savvy.
For the last two seasons, Dudley was such a part of the LeBron-AD duo that folks around the team jokingly referred to them as the Big Three. He kept them connected, he was unafraid to challenge them to play together, he sat with them through endless film sessions and jumped on them during countless timeouts.
“Dudz is one of those guys, no matter what the team needs … he’s ready for whatever,” James said this winter. “That’s a diamond in the rough for a championship team.”
Hmmm, anyone think this player-coaching style would be even more valuable this year with the volatile Westbrook added to the mix?
“I talked to Rob and Kurt, I thanked them, but I told them, you’re valuing youth more than a locker room presence guy,” Dudley said. “I said, ‘I respect you for doing that, but I think you’re wrong,’”
Half the players on the Lakers were recruited there by Dudley. Several younger players were mentored by Dudley. After Kyle Kuzma was traded earlier this month, someone on Twitter asked him to cite his greatest teammate, and he responded, “Duds and it’s not even close.”
Explained Dudley, “When people say I’m a locker room presence, my job was way more than a locker room presence. You’re a guidance counselor, a relationship expert. … I’m the middleman that brings it all together.”
His finest leadership moment occurred after the Lakers suffered a dramatic Game 5 loss to Miami in the 2020 Finals. While coach Frank Vogel had to tread lightly around his exhausted team, Dudley powerfully jumped in everyone’s face and held them accountable for failing to put in a title effort.
“It was the most serious adrenaline film session we ever had, it was the one practice that no one talked to each other, people were mad. … I called them out, I said we can’t have these mistakes,” remembered Dudley. “Frank Vogel has to walk a tight line, but I don’t. I can get on anybody and they know what kind of guy I am and they don’t take it personal.”
You know what kind of guy he is? He’s a 2007 Derek Fisher kind of guy. That’s the year the Lakers brought back Fisher from Utah partially because his calm veteran presence would connect the rest of the locker room with the increasingly distant Kobe Bryant. It worked. The bonded Lakers reached three straight Finals and won two championships.
Dudley holds that kind of sway. With his insistently giant smile and relentlessly honest approach, Dudley brings people together.
It is Dudley who worked in darkened gyms with rehabbing veterans. It is Dudley who held midnight film sessions with troubled youngsters. It was Dudley who suffered a serious knee injury last season yet still attended every game and cheered from the bench.
He hasn’t just done that for the last two years. He’s been like that for his entire 14-year career, which included stops in Milwaukee and Phoenix where he mentored both stars of this summer’s NBA Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker.
“Even if a fan doesn’t know, those players, coaches, equipment guys, they know,” Dudley said. “They understand the value in what I do.”
Key matchups and more for the Clippers and Lakers after the NBA released the full schedule for the 2021-22 season Friday.
As his career was winding down, he explained that value to his young son Justus when the child asked his father why he kept working so hard when he wasn’t playing.
“I told him, ‘My time is over, but you still have to help the team in some capacity, so what is your value?” he said. “It was honor for me to find that value and fulfill that role.”
That honor reached its pinnacle when Dudley was actually in the game during the final seconds of the Lakers Game 6 clinching title win against Miami.
“I’ll never forget being on the court when we won it all,” he said.
And what did he do? What do you think he did?
This being Jared Dudley, he ran straight into the arms of other Lakers, losing himself in the championship fabric he created.
“I was only looking to embrace my teammates,” he remembered. They’ll miss that next championship hug.
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