From breakups to makeups: NBA reunions that defied expectations

Dwight Howard is on his way back to the Los Angeles Lakers, after agreeing to a buyout with the Memphis Grizzlies.

While the move wasn’t a surprise given recent developments — specifically the Lakers losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL and the Grizzlies having little interest in keeping Howard on the roster after acquiring his contract earlier this summer — it’s shocking to anyone who remembers how poorly Howard’s first stint with the Lakers went.

The former Defensive Player of the Year joined the Lakers in 2012 and was supposed to be part of a superteam with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, who was also traded to Los Angeles that summer. Instead, head coach Mike Brown was fired after a 1-4 start, Howard and Bryant reportedly feuded in the locker room (which led to a staged photo that did nothing to stem the rumors) and Bryant tore his Achilles tendon with two games left in the season. As a final indignity, Howard was ejected from his final game as a Laker, a 103-82 loss to complete the San Antonio Spurs‘ four-game sweep in the first round.

Howard signed with the Houston Rockets in the summer of 2013, and when he and Bryant next met on the court, Bryant famously called Howard “soft,” something the center told Fox Sports 1 that he “hated” Bryant for at the time.

Yet, despite all that history, Howard will once again don a Lakers jersey as he tries to help the team win its first NBA title since 2010.

The reunion between Howard and the Lakers is far from the first in NBA history to come after a bad breakup.

A three-time MVP, Malone had led the 76ers to a title in 1983, but his 1985-86 season ended early due to a fractured orbital bone. Fearing Malone’s best days were behind him following a season in which he’d feuded with coach Matt Guokas, Philadelphia traded him to the Washington Bullets in exchange for All-Star big man Jeff Ruland and Clifford Robinson. “We’re far better equipped to deal at a championship level than 24 hours ago,” 76ers general manager Pat Williams said at the time. He was wrong. The 76ers fell from 54 wins to 45, as Ruland continued to struggle with injuries. Meanwhile, Malone proved he was far from done, making the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons.

After stints in Washington, Atlanta, and Milwaukee, Malone returned to Philadelphia for the 1993-94 season. Serving as a backup and mentor to rookie Shawn Bradley, Malone played 55 games in what would turn out to be his second-to-last NBA season. The 76ers posthumously retired Malone’s No. 2 jersey earlier this year.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 draft by the Orlando Magic, Webber was traded to the Warriors in exchange for Anfernee Hardaway and three future first-round picks. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, despite clashing with head coach Don Nelson for much of the season. Because Webber was drafted in the era before rookie scale contracts, his first deal contained an out clause after the first season, which he exercised, making him a free agent. He made it clear he had no intention of returning to Golden State, so the Warriors worked a sign-and-trade deal with the Washington Bullets, where Webber would play the next four seasons.

After his brief stint with the Detroit Pistons ended, Webber remained unsigned at the start of the 2007-08 season. He eventually rejoined the Warriors — and Nelson, who’d also come full circle after leaving the Bay — but was limited to just nine games before his surgically repaired knees forced him to retire two months later.

KG and Starbury were supposed to be the star duo that lifted the Minnesota Timberwolves to the top of the NBA. Instead, they played a little more than two seasons together before Marbury forced his way out of Minnesota, a move that reports at the time suggested was fueled in part by Marbury’s jealousy over Garnett’s contract (the trade came after the 1998-99 lockout and the subsequent institution of maximum salaries, which meant Marbury wouldn’t have been able to sign a deal similar to Garnett’s).

After a contentious end to his time with the New York Knicks, Marbury signed with the Boston Celtics, rejoining Garnett, who’d led the team to a championship the season before. Marbury played 23 regular-season games for Boston and saw action in all 14 of the Celtics’ playoff games that season, but a title once again eluded the duo, as Garnett’s injuries prevented him from playing in the postseason.

A beloved MVP. A feud with a coach. A controversial trade. History repeated itself in Philadelphia 20 years after Moses Malone’s departure. Iverson (and Webber, coincidentally enough) had been benched for the 2005-06 season finale after showing up late to fan appreciation night. That set the stage for a summer of trade rumors, and while Iverson began the following season with the 76ers, it didn’t last long. After a 5-10 start, the 76ers told Iverson he wouldn’t be playing any more and sent him home to await a trade. He was eventually sent to Denver, where he played parts of three seasons before being dealt to Detroit.

Iverson started what would turn out to be his final NBA season with the Grizzlies, but left the team after just three games, and briefly retired. But less than a week into his retirement, he rejoined the 76ers, who were in need of guard help after Lou Williams suffered a broken jaw. Iverson played 25 games in his second stint with the 76ers, starting 24 of them, before leaving the team to attend to the health of his daughter. The team retired his No. 3 in 2014.

There has arguably never been an NBA breakup as fraught with emotion as the one between James and the Cavaliers in 2010. “The Decision” ripped the hearts out of Cleveland fans, then “The Letter” ripped into James. By the time James was on a stage in Miami setting a goal of winning “not five, not six, not seven” championships, it seemed the idea of him ever again playing in a Cavaliers uniform was dead and buried.

But time heals all wounds, and the “self-titled former king” (as Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had called James in his letter) made his triumphant return to Cleveland in 2014. Two years later, he brought the franchise its only championship, and when he left again in 2018, the team had nothing but good things to say about him.

Carmelo Anthony/Mike D’Antoni

D’Antoni had a losing record in his first two seasons with the Knicks, but things turned around in 2010-11 with the signing of Amar’e Stoudemire and the midseason trade that brought Anthony from Denver to New York. The Knicks posted their first winning record since 2000-01 and ended a six-year playoff drought. However, Anthony and D’Antoni quickly butted heads, and the following season, Anthony issued an ultimatum: It was either him or D’Antoni. So after just 69 games together, the Melo/D’Antoni partnership was over. “I just went in and quit,” D’Antoni told ESPN’s Tim Keown in 2017.

That would’ve been the end of the story, except the two managed to set aside their history to give it another shot in Houston last season. “I think this is totally different,” the coach said to USA Today, comparing the situations in Houston and New York. However, it wasn’t. Anthony played just 10 games for the Rockets before eventually being sent home, then traded to Chicago. All said, between their two stints together, D’Antoni hasn’t coached Anthony for a full 82-game season yet.

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