It has been all smiles and parties for Lakers fans and players since the team won their 15th championship.
But now, 18 days later, the party is coming to a halt, and for a few key Lakers, the party might be over altogether.
There are some big question marks on this particular L.A. team, namely Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, and Phil Jackson.
Obviously, Bryant’s name looms large on that list. Bryant had the opportunity to opt out of his contract at the end of this season.
However, Lakers fans everywhere can now breathe easy about Bryant. ESPN has recently reported that Bryant would not opt out of his contract and was expected to sign a three-year extension, which would keep him with the Lakers for the next five years.
So that's one big name down; three more to go.
Phil Jackson is as responsible for the Lakers' success as any player perhaps more so. His Zen master techniques may not be orthodox (Kobe Bryant has stated that Jackson told the team before a game to be like frogs on a lily pad), but they work for L.A.
Still, Jackson has been plagued with health issues, and if he decides to retire, there is not much the rest of the Lakers organization can do.
This is not the case for Ariza and "Candyman" Odom.
Both players were vital to the Lakers' success in the playoffs, and both had contracts that expired at the end of this season.
Now ESPN is reporting that, while the Lakers are actively trying to resign Odom, they may let Ariza go.
This would be a huge mistake for both Ariza and the Lakers.
Meanwhile, he has thrived in L.A.
During the playoffs, Ariza played a key role on offense as someone who could shoot threes and drive to the hoop. But even more important to the team was his scrappy defense.
The Lakers benefited from Ariza’s aggression and speed, particularly his ability to create turnovers by stepping into passing lanes.
Sometimes, it looked as though the opposing teams were passing the ball to right to him.
More than any other, the Ariza play that is burned in the memory of every Lakers fan (and Nuggets fan) occurred in Game One against Denver.
With time winding down in the close game, Ariza stole the inbounds pass from Chauncey Billups, insuring Lakers’ victory. A steal at any time during a game is good, but doing it in the closing minutes of a Conference Finals game is great.
So why aren’t the Lakers acknowledging Ariza’s value?
That seems to be how the small forward feels.
Sources say that the Lakers are refusing to offer Ariza more than the mid-level exception—$5.6 million.
Economic times are tough, but since Ariza is apparently considering offers from other teams that would pay him similarly, the hang up seems to be more about respect than dollar signs.
It is hard to know exactly what is going on in the minds and bank accounts of the Lakers organization and Ariza, but one thing is certain.
The Lakers need Ariza back.
Currently, the Lakers do not have another quick, young forward like Ariza that could fill his role if he leaves the team.
The other forwards on the 2008-09 Lakers roster include Josh Powell and Luke Walton. Both players saw time during the playoffs, but neither had the impact that Ariza did.
Odom is closest to Ariza in style of play and ability, which could explain why the Lakers think they can keep one and not the other.
However, there are problems with Odom. He will turn 30 this November, and he does not have Ariza's speed and agility. Keeping Odom over Ariza also seems strange when you consider that Odom was benched in favor of Andrew Bynum earlier in the 2008-09 season.
Point guard Derek Fisher stated in an interview that he would like to see the Lakers keep both men; losing just one player can dramatically change the chemistry of a team.
The Lakers won the NBA Finals because they played well together as a team. L.A. is not the Kobe Bryant Show—every player has an important role on the team. Disrupting this team chemistry could damage L.A.’s ability to win games.
Maybe it’s just not in the cards for Ariza to stay in L.A., maybe there just isn’t enough money.
But it does seem strange that this deal is not getting done.
Ariza has said that he would love to remain in L.A.; he also said that money is important but not the only thing he would take in to consideration. Ariza is a California native who went to college at UCLA and has been extremely pleased with the opportunity to play in his home state.
In addition to forming close bonds with the coaching staff and his teammates, Ariza has become a fan favorite.
All this considered, it seems strange that the Lakers cannot find a way to keep the promising player.
The Lakers are not a team who needs to free up money in order to gain missing pieces.
They have veterans and young guards like Bryant, Fisher, Shannon Brown, and Sasha Vujacic.
They also have the veteran forward/center Pau Gasol and an up-and-coming center in Bynum.
This means they have talent as well as insurance for the future.
Ariza is 24, which means he has a long career ahead of him and could play a big role in the future of the franchise. Keeping him would mean that the Lakers would not only have a championship-caliber team for next season but also for years to come.
Losing Ariza will not destroy the Lakers, but it will certainly hurt. Throughout the regular season and postseason, Ariza proved he can make shots and play clutch defense. He is also well-liked in L.A. by fans and players.
The Lakers should think twice before they say good-bye to Trevor Ariza.
On the other hand, considering the team he would get to be a part of and how he has thrived in L.A. while struggling elsewhere, Ariza should be cautious before he leaves L.A.
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