The annual free-agent scramble began for the Lakers when their most important player decided not to be part of it.
Kobe Bryant elected not to terminate the final two years of his contract and was expected to sign a three-year extension sometime this month.
Bryant would make a guaranteed $47.8 million over the next two years and could earn another $86 million to $91 million with the extension, depending on NBA salary-cap figures to be determined in 2011.
There was optimism that the sides would reach agreement, one source familiar with the situation calling it “a layup” but declining to speak further about specifics.
Under terms of the extension, the earliest Bryant could opt out again would probably be June 2012, three seasons from now. To do that, however, would leave more than $60 million on the table over the last two years.
In other words, Bryant, who has spent his entire 13-year career with the Lakers, might very well retire with them. He will be 31 next month.
Tuesday was the last possible day for Bryant to become an unrestricted free agent, but he did not terminate his contract because he wanted to “let Lamar [Odom] and Trevor [Ariza] have their day,” according to a source who was not authorized to speak publicly about the decision.
Indeed, the Lakers, who won the NBA title 17 days ago, made preliminary contact Tuesday night with representatives for both of the unrestricted free-agent forwards, as General Manager Mitch Kupchak tried to live up to his recent promise to “make quick decisions . . . and hopefully we can bring this team back intact.”
Odom was on the Lakers’ books for $14.1 million last season but will have to take a substantial pay cut. Ariza, who turned 24 Tuesday, will get a solid pay raise from the $3.1 million he made last season. No verbal agreements were struck with either player Tuesday night, though negotiations will continue throughout the week.
San Antonio and Phoenix are interested in trying to sign Odom. Both teams are trying to clear salary-cap space to see if they can get a deal done with Odom, who is looking for at least a four-year deal worth an average of $10 million a year.
Suns Coach Alvin Gentry is familiar with Odom, having coached him when they were both with the Clippers from 2000 to 2003.
San Antonio is looking for a versatile power forward to join perennial All-Star Tim Duncan after the Spurs traded Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto to acquire small forward Richard Jefferson.
Only a handful of teams currently have enough salary-cap room to sign Odom or Ariza: Detroit, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Atlanta, Toronto, Portland and perhaps Sacramento.
“There are not a lot of teams,” Kupchak said. “There’s a couple, but it only takes one team to make an offer.”
Detroit appears to be the biggest free-agent buyer this summer with about $20 million to spend toward next season’s payroll, though the Pistons were believed to be interested in Chicago guard Ben Gordon and Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu. If the Pistons signed both players, their spending spree would end and they wouldn’t have enough money to sign Ariza or Odom.
If the Lakers are unable to sign Odom or Ariza, they might pursue Houston forward Ron Artest, who made $7.4 million last season but became more attractive to the Rockets almost overnight amid reports that center Yao Ming might miss next season because of a broken foot.
Artest, 29, sat courtside for some Lakers home playoff games but would probably have to take a pay cut to play for a team that is conscious of the luxury-tax penalties looming in the future.
The Lakers’ third unrestricted free agent of note is reserve guard Shannon Brown. The Lakers spoke with his agent Tuesday night, but it will be a slow-speed chase compared to their interest in Odom and Ariza.
Brown, 23, enjoyed his time with the Lakers and wanted to return but would also look over the free-agent landscape, according to his agent, Mark Bartelstein. Brown was basically a throw-in with Adam Morrison in the February trade that sent Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte. The Lakers were his fourth NBA team in three NBA seasons.
Brown, 23, made $796,000 last season, well below the NBA average of $5.6 million.
“Shannon would love to be back with the Lakers,” Bartelstein said. “He had a positive experience, a great experience with the Lakers. He loved being there. We’ll talk to Mitch and see how things unfold.”
There’s still some minor unfolding to monitor in the Bryant situation.
If he unexpectedly can’t reach an agreement with the Lakers on an extension, he will play this season for $23 million and can opt out next June. He could then sign a four-year deal for $112 million.
Bryant, however, wants to stay in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are coming off their first NBA championship since 2002 and are built to contend for years to come.