Trevor Ariza disclosed on Monday that the Lakers never made a serious effort to re-sign him and owner Jerry Buss had his sights set on Ron Artest when the free agency period began.
“From my understanding, they told me that my work was like the mid-level or whatever, and to go find an offer and they’ll match it. The next day, I heard Artest had dinner with Buss and came to an agreement,” Ariza told Los Angeles radio station KLAC-570.
Artest reportedly signed a three-year contract worth $18 million, which amounts to $6 million per season. Final terms of the deal could not be finalized until next season’s salary cap is announced.
Just hours after the Artest signing, Ariza agreed to terms with the Houston Rockets for a reported five-year, $33 million deal, which amounts to a little more than $6 million a season. In short, the Lakers replaced the underrated Ariza with the more established Artest.
“It is what it is. I thank the Lakers for giving an opportunity to play for a championship,” Ariza said. “Things happen and it’s all part of business. I really don’t think I did anything wrong in this situation. They signed Ron Artest, and there’s not much I could do.”
Ariza, who turned 24 years old on June 30, admitted he never wanted to leave Los Angeles and his desire all along was to play for the Lakers. However, the Lakers had other plans.
“I mean, what kid from L.A. would want to leave L.A.?” asked the former Westchester High School and UCLA standout. “The business side is not always the pleasant side. You’re not always gonna like what you hear.”
During the regular season, Ariza averaged 8.9 points per game, 4.3 rebounds and was among the league leaders in steals (1.7). The 6-foot-8 small forward also converted a career-best 61 3-pointers. In his previous four seasons, he made just nine 3-pointers.
His stock soared during the playoffs, becoming a critical cog to the Lakers’ machine that delivered L.A. its 10th NBA championship and the 15th trophy for the franchise. His defense and timely outside shooting were key factors in the Lakers eliminating Utah, Houston and Denver in the Western Conference playoffs and zooming past Orlando in the NBA Finals.
After the championship parade where nearly 90,000 Laker fans at the L.A. Coliseum begged Ariza to stay, Ariza and his agent David Lee were led to believe the team was working on a long-term deal that would keep Ariza in a Lakers uniform. But contract talks never got off the starting blocks and Lee was heavily criticized for trying to “bluff” his way to getting more money for his client. When Ariza agreed to the $33-million deal offered by the Rockets, the prevailing thought was he chose money over winning.
Ariza claimed that was not the case at all.
“There wasn’t any negotiations. There was no, ‘We’re willing to give you this,’ ” Ariza explained.
“Me, I’m a competitor. I always want to win in anything. I love to win and I’m gonna do everything I can to win,” he said. “I had to do what’s best for me. At the end of the day, it’s a business.”
Ariza was not the only one who was taken by surprise. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said last week that he was not given an “either/or” when it came down to deciding between Artest and Ariza.
“I knew we had Ron on our wish list for, what, three years now? And we needed a lockdown defender besides Kobe Bryant that would take on the chores,” Jackson said. “Trevor turned out to be that guy this year. So I was quite surprised, as was most of our fans, that negotiations did not go well with Trevor and his people. We think that we have a player that has probably a little more dimension to Trevor, but still Trevor has that youth and that speed that we’ll miss.”
Despite being hugely disappointed he won’t get a chance to play for his hometown team, Ariza says he does not have any ill feelings toward the franchise or the teammates he left behind.
“Of course there’s not gonna be any hard feelings. Everybody wished me the best of luck and they said they were always going to be there for me, and that gave me a good feeling,” Ariza said. “What’s done is done and you move on.”