By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jul 31 2009 12:44AM
The Los Angeles Lakers will defend their championship next season with one of their key players still aboard.
The Lakers have confirmed on the team's website that free agent forward Lamar Odom has agreed to return to the Lakers next season, accepting the team's multi-year offer and spurning a five-year, $34 million offer from the Miami Heat. The decision ends a month's worth of agony for the Lakers, who had signed Ron Artest early in the free agent period but lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza to the Rockets in what became, essentially, a trade.
But losing the 29-year-old Odom, who was a key part of Los Angeles's run to the championship, would have been a serious blow to the Lakers' hopes of repeating. Kobe Bryant, who has yet to sign his contract extension while waiting to see what happened with Odom, had made it clear he considered Odom's return essential.
Odom and the Lakers had spent the last few weeks squabbling over a new deal, with the Lakers offering him his choice of a three-year, $27 million deal or a four-year, $36 million deal. However, the fourth year of that deal was only partially guaranteed, giving Odom just $30 million guaranteed for the contract. When Odom balked at both options, Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner, pulled both offers off the table, and formal negotiations stopped for a few days.
However, Odom's agent, Jeff Schwartz, and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak continued informal talks on a daily basis, and negotations were once again under way by last week. The Lakers had reduced their offer to Odom, however, according to a source.
Odom accepted a role coming off the bench when Ariza had starred late in the regular season and Playoffs, but he was still viewed as a starter by the team. His length and versatility, combined with that of power forward/center Pau Gasol, made the Lakers very difficult to defend at the offensive end and quite hard to score on at the defensive end. He averaged 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds last season for the Lakers.
The Heat had offered Odom its full mid-level exception, and hoped that Odom would be swayed both by the opportunity to play again with Dwyane Wade and by the lack of a state income tax in Florida, which would make Miami's offer closer in actual dollars to the Lakers' proposals. Team president Pat Riley and Wade put the full-court press on Odom in a Monday meeting. But when Odom left that meeting without signing, it became apparant that Miami didn't get it done.
Odom was apparantely too comfortable in Los Angeles, where he could be an important part of the team without having to be the Lakers' first or second option, and where he's spent nine of his 10 NBA seasons. (He played his first four seasons with the Clippers, and after one year in Miami, was sent back to Los Angeles in 2004 as part of the Shaquille O'Neal trade.)
Not getting Odom is an equally strong blow to the Heat, which had hoped luring Odom back to Miami, where he had one of his best pro seasons alongside then-rookie Wade in 2003-04, would help convince Wade to remain with the Heat after this season. Wade is expected to opt out of his deal at season's end and explore free agency, though he could return to Miami. The Heat did not match a two-year, $6 million offer sheet given to free agent forward Jamario Moon last week by Cleveland in hopes of keeping cap room available for next summer.
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