Trevor Ariza talks with Rockets

In what essentially became a swap of free-agent forwards, the Lakers agreed to contract terms with former Houston Rockets forward Ron Artest while the Rockets reached an agreement with Trevor Ariza on a Thursday that proved to be as unpredictable and impulsive as, well, the Lakers’ newest acquisition.

Artest, who will be 30 in November, is a formidable defender with scoring skills who enjoys the Los Angeles lifestyle almost as much as the Lakers took pleasure in bringing him into their fold.

He agreed to a three-year deal worth about $18 million, giving the Lakers two of the NBA’s top defenders: Kobe Bryant was a first-team All-Defensive selection last season while Artest was second team.


Artest was a presence in the courtside seats for some of the Lakers’ games in the NBA Finals, sticking out among the actors, producers and business moguls who will now presumably cheer for him when the Lakers resume play after winning the franchise’s 15th championship a few weeks ago.

He averaged 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists for the Rockets last season and didn’t seem upset about taking a pay cut after making $7.4 million last season.

“I am very excited to finally be going to L.A.,” Artest said in a statement. “For years now, the Lakers have expressed interest in having me play for them, but we could never get the stars to align. I’m finally a Laker and I can’t wait to get on the court with Kobe, Pau [Gasol] and the rest of the team, and play for Phil [Jackson].

“I look forward to helping the Lakers defend their championship, and it will be great to finally not get booed in the Staples Center.”

Artest cannot officially sign the contract until the league’s weeklong moratorium on announcing free-agent signings ends next Wednesday.

The Lakers can’t comment specifically on signing free agents until the moratorium ends, but the addition of Artest ended their pursuit of Ariza, who agreed to a five-year deal worth about $33 million with Houston a few hours after the Lakers came to terms with Artest.

“I am happy with my decision,” Ariza told The Times. “I’m glad this all worked out. The Rockets are going to give me a chance to improve my game and that’s all you can ask for.”

Ariza played in all 82 regular-season games and stepped up his game in the playoffs, averaging 11.3 points while shooting a stellar 47.6% from three-point range. He also had memorable steals of two inbounds passes late in Games 1 and 3 of the Western Conference finals against Denver.

Ariza’s agent, David Lee, said the 24-year-old forward passed up a more lucrative contract offer from another team to go to Houston. That team was believed to be Toronto.

“It was never about the money,” Lee said. “It was about going someplace where you felt appreciated.”

The courtship of Artest began with a phone call from Magic Johnson, continued over the phone with Jackson and ended during a seal-the-deal lunch Thursday with Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

Jackson has always admired Artest from afar and believes he can coach Artest despite the player’s sometimes irregular behavior.

Artest offered mutual respect on Thursday.

“I had a great talk today with Phil,” Artest said. “I’m a huge fan of his and I can’t wait to show him what I can do.”

Bryant is a longtime supporter of Artest and even begged the Lakers to trade for him a few years ago, though the two had some brush-ups last season that demonstrated first-hand the unpredictability of Artest.

In Game 2 of the West semifinals between the Lakers and Rockets, Artest was called for an over-the-back foul, complained to the referee, ran across the court to Bryant and got in the face of the Lakers’ guard. Artest was angry that Bryant elbowed him while the two were jostling underneath the basket.

After they were separated, Artest pointed at Bryant and then pointed at his own neck, indicating where the blow had landed.

Artest was ejected from the game and said afterward, “I told Kobe, ‘You’ve got to relax. You’re hitting the wrong person. Don’t you know you’re hitting Ron Artest?’ ”

Two months before that, Artest began trash-talking to Bryant in a regular-season game. Bryant responded by scoring 31 points in the second half of a 102-96 Lakers victory.

“It wasn’t much of a battle,” Bryant said. “I kicked his [butt]”

Artest answered by saying, “We are not friends out there at all. After the season, we might play pickup games or something like that. Not now.”

At the very least, Lakers practices should be more entertaining next season.

In case the Lakers hadn’t shaken their lack-of-toughness image by winning the championship, adding the barrel-chested Artest won’t hurt. He is 6 feet 7, 260 pounds and afraid of practically no one.

He gained several years’ worth of notoriety as the centerpiece of one of the NBA’s darkest moments, the infamous brawl in 2004 that involved the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and numerous fans.

Artest, then with the Pacers, went into the crowd after a beverage was thrown at him and later punched a fan. He was suspended for a total of 86 games, the longest penalty for a physical altercation in NBA history. Off the court, he received a year’s probation for pleading no contest to assault charges.

The Lakers have now allocated roughly $81.5 million toward 11 players on next season’s payroll, which puts them roughly $10 million into luxury-tax territory.

The Lakers were conscious of the tax heading into the off-season, so it remains to be seen who else they pursue. By getting Artest with the mid-level exception, a spending tool for teams that are over the salary cap, the Lakers have only a handful of possibilities remaining beyond a trade.

A large payday for free-agent forward Lamar Odom has all but disappeared, though he could still sign a one-year deal with the team and try free agency again next season when more teams will have money to spend. The Lakers have also maintained contact with free-agent guard Shannon Brown and have agreed to talk again today.