Will any Lakers walk?

Lakers could be title threats for years, but with free agency and salary cap, can Buss keep championship team intact? Free agents Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza are keys. Oh, and Kobe, too in 2 years.

The Lakers will officially close the books on their championship season with Wednesday's victory parade and a few days' worth of individual exit meetings, but one question won't be answered amid all the confetti and congratulations.What's next?

The Lakers will experience a flurry of activity between now and mid-July, starting with the draft June 25, in which they have the 29th, 42nd and 59th picks. Then the real decisions begin with free agency.Kobe Bryant can terminate the last two years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Forwards Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza officially become unrestricted free agents that day, as does reserve guard Shannon Brown.The Lakers needed only five games to defeat the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals, and they are already favored by many oddsmakers to win it all again next season, but what will their roster look like when training camp begins in October?

"I think we could be in position to advance to the Finals for the next three, four years," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said during the locker-room celebration after the Lakers' 15th championship. "But this summer we'll have some free-agent issues we'll have to address.

"Let's start with the easy one.

Bryant will be 31 in August and has accumulated plenty of mileage in a 13-year career, but he just finished averaging 32.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds in the Finals on the way to his first Finals MVP award.

Suddenly, a five-year, $135-million contract, the maximum for a player his age, doesn't seem like such a bad idea. His legendary off-season workout habits should keep him in competitive shape for most of a five-year deal, and it would be a public-relations fiasco if the Lakers let him walk.
Bryant wants to come back. He said during the Finals that he couldn't envision playing for another team next season. Only something completely unforeseen would keep him from returning to the Lakers.

But then there's Ariza and Odom.

It was believed only one of them would stay, until the Lakers high-stepped through the last two weeks of the playoffs with relative ease, winning the last two games of the Western Conference finals against a physical, feisty Denver team before disposing of Orlando.

The recent sentiment is that there might be room for both Ariza and Odom. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson even said as much last week, saying it wasn't "written in stone" that the team would have to make an either/or decision with the two players.

Basically, it comes down to owner Jerry Buss, who has stepped up financially numerous times over the years, most recently by signing Andrew Bynum to a four-year, $57.4-million contract extension last October and, before that, absorbing an extra $49 million in salary by acquiring Pau Gasol in February 2008.

The Lakers have already committed $74 million to eight players for next season, a figure that includes $23 million earmarked for Bryant. This season's NBA salary cap was $58.68 million; the luxury-tax threshold was $71.2 million.

Odom, who will be 30 in November, was on the Lakers' books for $14.1 million this season. He would have to take a significant pay cut.

Ariza, who turns 24 in two weeks, made $3.1 million this season and is in line for a substantial raise, probably at least doubling his salary.

Buss made millions in revenue with 12 playoff home games and saved about $18 million in salary and luxury-tax fees over the next two seasons with the February trades of Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm.

The great unknown, however, is the spending culture of NBA owners this summer in a bedraggled economy. Will Odom and Ariza find fewer offers than they would have entertained in past free-agent markets? If so, the Lakers might be able to retain both.

Another important economic figure for the Lakers will be the luxury-tax threshold for the 2009-10 season, which will be announced by the NBA in July. The team is already expected to pay between $5 million and $7 million in luxury taxes this season, a number that would jump significantly next season if Odom and Ariza are re-signed. Buss will have to dip much more deeply into his own pockets to re-sign the two free-agent forwards.

Buss is already expected to spend $12 million next season on Jackson, who will go through his annual off-season health tests and personal self-evaluation before deciding whether to come back for the final year of his contract. Jackson said in April he would "be shocked" if he didn't come back, and there has been no evidence that his mind-set has changed despite winning a 10th championship as a coach.

As would be expected, the players hope everybody returns next season.

"We're right in the prime of our window of opportunity right now," forward Luke Walton said a few minutes after the champagne celebration in the Lakers' locker room Sunday night. "Obviously there's some free agents that they're going to have to deal with, but if we can keep this team intact, there's no reason we're not competing for a championship every year for the next four or five years, at least.

"Three Lakers have one more season on their contracts: Adam Morrison ($5.2 million), Derek Fisher ($5 million) and Jordan Farmar ($1.9 million). Sasha Vujacic will make $10.5 million over the next two seasons, and Gasol will make $34.2 million in the same span. Walton has four more years and $21.6 million on his contract.

The team holds options for next season on Josh Powell ($959,000), DJ Mbenga ($959,000) and Sun Yue ($736,000).
Repost from LA times