- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LeBron or Kobe? Kobe or Shaq?
These weren't just classic sports arguments for Ron Artest. For him, this was real life, real money and perhaps his last real shot at an NBA championship.
He chose Kobe.
Or maybe his decision was more about Los Angeles over Cleveland (no contest there). After all, he was sitting courtside at Staples Center almost as much Jack and Denzel after the Lakers eliminated the Rockets from the playoffs, and he's already familiar with two fixtures of L.A. nightlife: TMZ paparazzi and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. He even has a cell phone with a 310 area code.
But from a basketball perspective, Artest's choice reaffirms the final theme of this season: Shaq was then, Kobe's now, LeBron's next. At the moment, nothing matters in the NBA world as much as what the Lakers are up to.
Even on Shaquille O'Neal's home turf of Twitter, "Ron Artest" was the second-ranked trending topic Thursday evening, with "Lakers" and "Kobe" not far behind. No sign of Shaq or LeBron in the top 10.
We've reached the point that Shaq's holding up a new jersey no longer qualifies as the lead story of the day, even if his presence improves the team with the best record in the league last season. When he went to the Lakers on the eve of the 1996 Olympics, it was a bigger story than the Games themselves. And who can forget his pulling up to AmericanAirlines Arena in a big rig, then dousing the adoring crowd with a Super Soaker upon his arrival in Miami? He made the "SportsCenter" highlights on his first night in Phoenix, and all he did was watch the game from a suite.
Thursday's introductory news conference in Cleveland felt less like the main event and more like a lounge act on the side of the casino. Maybe it's because he was leaning back in a chair while holding a microphone to his mouth instead of standing at a lectern. Maybe it's because this is the fourth time he has done this. Maybe it's because there's no tension about the pecking order anymore. "We all know it's LeBron's team," O'Neal said.
"I'm now in the security business," he added. "My job is to protect the King. And that's what I'm here to do."
The final question posed to him was what he thought about Dwight Howard. And although Shaq continued to downplay the neo-Superman, the question itself was another subtle reminder of the shift: It used to be that other teams had to make moves to deal with Shaq. Shaq was brought to Cleveland to match up with Howard.
In retrospect, it makes sense that Artest never quite snapped and crossed that imaginary line when Bryant elbowed him in the conference semifinals. He ran up on him, sure. He wouldn't have been able to keep wearing those "So Hood" T-shirts if he hadn't. But he didn't shove or swing. No sense in alienating his future colleague, not if you think that's the guy who can get you a ring.
Artest could have gone with LeBron and Shaq. The money would have been about the same: the mid-level exception, starting at about $5.6 million next season. He went with Bryant and Pau Gasol instead. That has to say something.
Just as telling is the Lakers' decision to go with Artest instead of younger Trevor Ariza. It shows they're putting everything into these next three years and not worrying too much about the future. Ariza would have wanted a five-year contract; Artest was willing to come for three. The end of Artest's contract coincides with the reported opt-out clause for Bryant. We don't know whether Kobe will choose to leave in 2012, but we do know this: He'll be 33 that summer, turning 34 in August. The three years with Artest probably represent Bryant's last stages of physical superiority over the opposition. He'll still be ahead of the pack in knowledge and determination, but we've already seen some slipping in his athletic ability and it will only decline from here.
So the Lakers are thinking short-term and trying to squeeze in a couple more championships right now. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was even willing to increase his roster's average age and let one of his best acquisitions walk away, two things general managers are generally loath to do.
Ariza's agent, David Lee, said the Lakers never made an offer to Ariza, telling him they were ready to offer the midlevel exception but to see what else he could find on the market.
"The process was incredibly strange, which leads me to believe that they wanted to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish for years, and that's Ron Artest," Lee said.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey quickly locked in on Ariza after primary target Marcin Gortat went with the Dallas Mavericks. Morey flew to Las Vegas to meet with Ariza, and that was enough for Ariza, who turned down what Lee said was a similar offer from Cleveland and an offer worth $8 million more overall from the Toronto Raptors.
Artest gives the Lakers the same qualities as Ariza -- perimeter defense and toughness -- plus the ability to get his own shot, and a dash of crazy. Ariza wound up in Artest's old spot in Houston, where he's actually a better fit. With Yao Ming's career on pause -- at best -- the Rockets have to position themselves to be good in a couple of years, perhaps by bringing in a major free agent in 2010 and/or having Yao return from treatment on his feet that might hinder him for the better part of two seasons. Amazing how quickly a team that seemed on the rise in these playoffs now finds itself retooling.
The future's too nebulous in the NBA. It wasn't too long ago that it looked as if Shaq and Kobe would be winning championships together for the rest of the decade. It turned out they won their next two on opposite coasts. They'll play the next season in buildings separated by 2,345 miles of road and Kobe's the one in the driver's seat.
38mMichael C. Wright