Odom or Ariza? Choice looms for L.A.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Such is the business of basketball that Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom are collaborating while competing, trying their best to win a championship for Los Angeles even if it means one of them won't be around when they hand out the rings next season.

Both will be free agents this summer. And since the Lakers are looking at $74 million for eight players (assuming Kobe Bryant doesn't leave through his opt-out clause) on the 2009-10 payroll, it is not a given that both Ariza and Odom can return.

"Sometimes you have to make tough decisions," a Lakers official said.

But this organization does not always make cold-hearted decisions. After the Lakers won their last championship in 2002, owner Jerry Buss refuted notions that he would slash payroll to get below the luxury-tax threshold, jubilantly declaring, "We're going way over the tax!" in the hours after the Lakers beat the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals. General manager Mitch Kupchak also said the core players deserved a chance to defend their championship. As a result, 10 players made it back to the roster the next season. So there's room for sentiment. There's also a little extra cash in the coffers, thanks to 12 home playoff games (grossing about $4 million each for the Lakers) so far this postseason.

But both Odom and Ariza will seek long-term, lucrative deals that could extend beyond this group's championship window. For Ariza, who made $3 million this year, it's his first crack at a large contract. For Odom, coming off an $11.4 million base salary this season, it could be his last big contract.

Both have bolstered their value with strong playoff performances. Ariza made two critical steals in Lakers victories against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, then emerged from a shooting slump to make three 3-pointers and score 16 points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Odom has averaged 12 points and nine rebounds in the postseason and the Lakers have a 5-1 record in the six playoff games in which he recorded a double-double. There's always a premium placed on youth. Ariza turns 24 at the end of the month, while Odom will be 30 in November.

Ariza has not been a breakout star, but he's been a valuable contributor in his first go-round as a starter on a playoff team.

"I just go out and play the game," Ariza said. "You start messing up when you put too much pressure on yourself. Just come into the game clear and just try to play hard."

Odom is no longer viewed as a potential star, but he has won over enough general managers with his versatility that there will be interest in him. And nothing increases a player's value like a championship ring, as new teams believe the winners can share that experience like a wireless network.

That's the basketball element.

"Then you say, 'What's the economy going to say?'" an Eastern Conference executive said.

In a slumping financial world, with a shrinking NBA salary cap and luxury-tax threshold and a limited number of teams with salary cap space, one team executive described this as a "nuclear winter" for free agents.

The Phoenix Suns, for example, could use Ariza to fill the perimeter defender/spot-up shooter role that used to be filled by Raja Bell, but owner Robert Sarver doesn't want to add to an already-swollen payroll unless the Suns can move some of their hefty contracts first.

One rumor I heard from one team executive Friday had the Suns sending Shaquille O'Neal (who will make $20 million next season, the final year of his contract) to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Ben Wallace ($14 million) and Sasha Pavlovic ($4.9 million, but only $1.5 million guaranteed). The salary swap is close enough to make the trade work under the salary cap guidelines, but the Suns would save $10 million in the transaction, counting salary and tax savings. They could save even more money if Wallace takes a buyout, a possibility that was raised when Wallace said he was considering retirement after the Cavs' Eastern Conference finals loss to the Magic. If the Suns acquired him and bought out his contract for less than face value, they could lower their actual expenditures, although the full amount would still count toward their luxury tax total.

That may sound practical for Phoenix and dynamic for Cleveland, but a source close to the situation said, "there's nothing going on" between the two teams.

The reality is a team that is looking to spend money could use the midlevel exception of approximately $5.6 million in starting annual salary to make an offer to Ariza, although folks in the league expect the Lakers to retain him. Meanwhile, a Western Conference executive believes "if you're in position to use the full midlevel for a couple of years, you'll get [Odom]."

A team with more options available than the midlevel is the Detroit Pistons, who will have approximately $18 million in salary cap room. One free agent supposedly being targeted by the Pistons is Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon, a scenario that would make even more sense if the rumors about their interest in trading Richard Hamilton are true. The Pistons have won with an unconventional power forward in Rasheed Wallace, so they might be agreeable to trying Odom at the 4 spot.

There are multiple possible destinations, for Odom and for Ariza. Not necessarily the same thing as their goal: winning a championship for the Lakers.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.