The Los Angeles Lakers have just begun to savor their 15th NBA championship, but the question of winning it all next year has already come up. The oddsmakers have already made them the favorite, but it won't be easy to repeat. A number of things have to fall in place for the Lakers to go back-to-back.
Forwards Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, who were instrumental in this year's title run, become free agents in July. So will backup point guard Shannon Brown, who had some good moments in the postseason. Odom, who made $14.1 million this season, and Ariza, who earned $3.1 million, will likely command big money on the open market. The Lakers want to keep both, and there have been reports the players might be willing to re-sign for less money than they could get elsewhere, but it's highly doubtful their agents share that opinion.
In reality, the Lakers would have to give Odom and Ariza contracts that would put the team over the salary cap and thus require them to pay a big luxury tax. That hasn't been an issue before, but it could become an issue now given the country's bad economy. Conversely, the economy might help the Lakers because other teams might not offer big money deals to Odom and Ariza.
If I had to make a choice between the two, I'd keep Odom. It would be cheaper to re-sign Ariza, but you can find another perimeter scorer and defender like him. However, there is no one else in the NBA like Odom, a power forward with point guard skills. With Odom, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have the most talented trio in the NBA. And speaking of Kobe, he can opt out of the last two years of his contract this summer, which would complicate matters even more.
Another issue the Lakers have to resolve is coach Phil Jackson's status. He has one year left on his contract, but he certainly has nothing left to prove now that he has surpassed Red Auerbach with his record 10th NBA title. There's also Jackson's health to consider. He has endured hip problems that have made walking painful at times. He may decide all the travel is too taxing on him physically. Jackson said after the game on Sunday that he would take about 10 days off to relax and think about his decision. All of L.A. will be waiting nervously for that decision.
So if Jackson returns, Odom and Ariza get re-signed and Bryant doesn't opt out, you would have to like the Lakers' chances to repeat. They are still relatively young, with only Bryant (31 in August), Odom (30 in November) and point guard Derek Fisher (34) in their 30s when next season begins. Gasol is in his late 20s, while Ariza, center Andrew Bynum, point guard Jordan Farmar, small forward Luke Walton and two guard Sasha Vujacic are in their early to mid-20s.
The Laker team that takes the floor in 2009-10 will depend on owner Jerry Buss. He made several million dollars in extra revenue from his team's 12 home playoff games. Buss loves to win and he has always made the financial commitment to make the Lakers a contender. If he continues to invest in the talent on his roster, he could be rewarded with a 16th NBA title.