ORLANDO, Fla. – Side by side, they sat. Still in uniform, their ready-made championship shirts wet with champagne, an empty bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial within arm's reach.
Trevor Ariza(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes), new to this championship thing, huddled together on a bench inside the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room. They looked a little unsure of themselves, of the whole delirious scene, and someone needed to tell them that, yeah, this was real.
This was their moment, too.
"If it was a movie, I couldn't have ended it any better," Ariza said. He laughed. He was thinking the same thing everyone was thinking.
"Hopefully, there will be a sequel."
That's the question, isn't it? Can the Lakers repeat? Even three-peat?
They're talented enough, young enough, to make sure this season isn't a one-and-done celebration, provided enough of them stay together. Ariza and Odom become free agents in a couple weeks, and for Lakers owner Jerry Buss, that means one thing:
It's time to pay.
Not at any cost, of course. Everyone has limits, even the owner of the league's most marketable franchise. Odom still floats through some games, if not weeks, and Ariza has had a nifty six-month run, which is about six months more than he's previously enjoyed.
But, luxury tax be damned, the Lakers also should now have greater incentive to bring both back. Ariza and Odom proved their value during these playoffs, and that included Sunday. Then, they combined for 32 points, 15 rebounds and three steals to help the Lakers secure their 15th title.
Yes, this was their moment, too.
Both have had their doubters, some of who were in attendance on Sunday. The Orlando Magic traded Ariza to the Lakers early last season because he wasn't a spot-up shooter, but there he stood in Game 5, taking a pass from Kobe Bryant(notes), setting his feet and throwing in a 3-pointer midway through the second quarter to give L.A. its first lead. He made another less than a minute later, flung his body to the court to force a turnover, poked away another steal and scored 11 points total in the game-changing burst.
Ariza's performance might have come as a surprise had he not done the same three nights earlier when he sparked the Lakers' Game 4 comeback with a 13-point third quarter. Not a spot-up shooter? He made 40 3-pointers in 84 attempts during these playoffs. In 229 career games before this season, he'd made nine.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak followed Ariza during his lone season at UCLA and targeted him as a possible roster addition once he arrived in the NBA. He liked Ariza's length and athleticism. But envisioning him as a starter in the Finals, a valued contributor on both ends of the floor?
"I couldn't tell you with a straight face I knew that," Kupchak said.
Ariza might not have envisioned it himself. For much of the Finals, he downplayed the significance of facing the team that traded him. But as the Lakers celebrated late Sunday, he finally admitted the obvious: Winning on the Magic's floor meant something.
"This," he said, "was special."
Odom said the same. He came to the Lakers five years ago from the Miami Heat as part of the package for Shaquille O'Neal(notes). Two seasons later, Odom watched as the Heat won the championship without him. After the Lakers bowed out of last season's Finals with a 39-point loss to the Boston Celtics, Odom shouldered much of the blame for the embarrassing collapse.
On Sunday, he played the role of hero. The Magic closed within five midway through the third quarter, and Odom answered with consecutive 3-pointers.
"I've always seen this coming, my day," he said. "…It's finally here, and it's … overwhelming."
Minutes earlier, Kupchak had stood in a quiet corner of the locker room with his son, Max, next to him. The champagne had already emptied, but Kupchak looked dry. Five years earlier, the Lakers dismantled their dynasty by trading Shaq. No one faced more heat during those three subsequent lost seasons than Kupchak, and no one deserves more credit for shaping the Lakers into a contender again.
This championship, Kupchak said, was special because it proved "the rebuilding stage had a beginning – and had an end."
Few teams can reload quickly, but to preserve Kobe's sanity, and their own, the Lakers learned they'd need to hasten the process. Jim Buss, the Lakers' vice president of player personnel, encouraged the team to draft Andrew Bynum(notes), a gutsy move considering Phil Jackson was opposed to bringing in the young center. It was Kupchak, who locked in on Ariza, who stole Pau Gasol(notes) from Memphis, who brought back Derek Fisher(notes).
Kobe had demanded the Lakers get him some help, and Kupchak delivered.
"Got a new point guard, got a new wing, got a Spaniard, and then it was all good," Bryant said. "…I had a bunch of Christmas presents that came early."
Kupchak's job now is to ensure Bryant keeps his gifts, including his coach. Jackson hasn't said whether he plans to return for next season. The travel wears on him at times, and he has now distanced himself from Red Auerbach for the most coaching championships. But the Lakers also don't want to see him go; if he stays for next season, they'll pay him $12 million.
"To take away the chef that stirs the pot, it will be a different batch of stew, I'll tell you that," Fisher said.
Truth be told, the Lakers would prefer not to change many of their ingredients. Ariza turns 24 at the end of the month and is due a nice raise from the $3 million he earned this season. To keep the midlevel suitors away from Ariza, the Lakers may need to pay him twice that in a contract extending four or five seasons. They gave Sasha Vujacic(notes) $15 million over three seasons last summer, and have yet to net much of a return.
Odom is more complicated. He made $14 million, and he'll need to take a pay cut to stay. He's willing to accept less, or so he says. The question: How much less? Only a few opposing teams own significant salary-cap room, so leveraging the Lakers won't be easy.
Buss knows a good opportunity when he sees one, so he's expected to make a legitimate effort to keep the core of the team intact. Moving either Luke Walton(notes) or Vujacic would make it easier to re-sign Ariza and Odom, but good luck finding buyers.
For at least one night, however, Ariza, Odom and everyone else were willing to let the future wait. This was their moment to share. What made it so special was not knowing whether they'd get another.
- Mitch Kupchak