Odds still favor Odom's returning to fold

The prospect of Lamar Odom's leaving the Los Angeles Lakers would be a free-agent triumph for 29 teams in the NBA and anyone else fretting about the league's overall competitive health.

Which is exactly why many of those teams watching the Lakers' standoff with Odom haven't allowed themselves to get too excited, even after a week's worth of signals suggesting that Odom might actually wind up in Miami.

The Los Angeles Times reported in its Thursday editions that the sides resumed contract negotiations Wednesday for the first time since Lakers owner Jerry Buss pulled his three-year, $27 million offer to Odom off the table. One source with knowledge of the talks told ESPN.com on Thursday that the sides have actually maintained an informal level of contact throughout the impasse. What pretty much everyone on the NBA map sees is how costly it would be for L.A. if Odom -- for all the luxury-tax consequences a new deal would trigger -- did get away.

Keeping Odom, remember, keeps the newly minted champions clearly above the rest of the West, with three imposing big men to team with Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest.

Losing him to the Heat? Unless Andrew Bynum and Artest are prepared to deliver the consistency neither has regularly supplied in their careers, Odom's departure would abruptly start to balance out the famously (infamously?) lopsided nature of the Pau Gasol trade that enrages rival executives to this day.

It's a natural, then, for those same executives to presume that Buss -- understandably hesitant as he is to add another long-term contract to a payroll that could creep past $90 million next season -- would ultimately be forced to do just that if he wants to preserve the Lakers' standing as overwhelming favorites in the West. As any citizen of Lakerland could tell you, Gasol's arrival was such a landscape-changer because Odom and Bynum were already there.

It's no coincidence, furthermore, that the bulk of the big spending this offseason has been witnessed in the Eastern Conference, where Orlando, Cleveland and Boston seem to have been locked into an ongoing game of Can You Top This? Reason being: There's no clear-cut Lakers-like favorite at the top of the improving East. It couldn't surprise you next June if any of those three teams won the conference.

"The high-profile teams [in the East] are willing to spend," said one top executive. "Now tell me which playoff teams are spending money in the West."

Indeed. So far only San Antonio, Dallas and Portland (unsuccessfully) have shown any willingness to make aggressive (translation: expensive) moves, which can't be solely attributed to the global economic downturn and the steep potential decreases projected for next year's salary-cap and luxury-tax threshold.

Those factors have certainly widened the gap more than ever between the teams willing to spend what it takes to contend and the overwhelming majority that shivers at the mere mention of brushing up against the tax line, as my colleague J.A. Adande expertly laid out earlier this week. Yet you can't discount the Lakers Factor, either. The thought of trying to keep up with L.A. is daunting -- even futile -- for much of the rest of the West when the Lakers' roster features those three bigs and Kobe.

If Odom winds up in Miami, though, L.A. no longer looks so untouchable.

Odom's consolation prize looks far more appetizing than the Lakers' Plan B if the thaw in negotiations doesn't progress to a deal from here. The 29-year-old can sign a five-year deal with the Heat worth $34 million to reunite with Dwyane Wade, with no state taxes to pay (potentially earning him close to an extra $1 million annually) and with an opt-out provision after three years that would allow Odom to return to the free-agent market in 2012 with full Larry Bird rights in Miami.

The Lakers, meanwhile, would be starting their title defense without two of their key difference-makers from the playoffs -- Odom and Trevor Ariza -- as well as dealing with a sure-to-be-perturbed Bryant.

The Lakers went into the offseason hoping to convince Kobe to sign a contract extension after they sorted out the Ariza/Artest swap and Odom's status. You'll recall that Kobe also has the option of opting out again next June and joining the free-agent class of 2010 if he chooses.

So it is with good reason that Bryant and Derek Fisher have been openly optimistic about Odom's return in recent days, even though it's not yet clear how close the parties are to an actual agreement.

There are simply too many factors -- in spite of Buss' payroll concerns and a standing offer from the Heat that is pretty palatable given Miami's salary-cap limitations -- favoring an outcome that supremely disappoints 29 teams. Again.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.