By Scott Howard-Cooper
September 02, 2009

Cart path, seventh hole, Woodcreek Golf Club, Roseville, Calif., the Matt Barnes-Bobby Jackson charity tournament last month.

"Trevor, you're up."

Trevor Ariza, a defending NBA champion as a Laker, a major free-agent signee as a Rocket, uncoiled from the cart and went to the back for the bag that had been supplied.

"Which one am I supposed to use?" he asked someone in the foursome.

"Sand wedge," came the answer. "The one with an S."

Ariza, holding up a club: "Is this an S or a 5?"

It was an S, it was his first time golfing, and it was that kind of summer. Ariza, expanding his horizons. New sport in the name of charity, new contract, new business address. New moment.

The Lakers left Ariza rather than the other way around, choosing to add free agent Ron Artest instead of re-signing Ariza, a high-risk move of altering a proven championship lineup. The job as starting small forward having been handed to Artest, Ariza then took a five-year deal from the Rockets, essentially replacing Artest.

Strange but true. Ariza went to high school in Los Angeles, went to college in Los Angeles, won an NBA title in Los Angeles, but when it finally came time for his big payday, he had to leave Los Angeles to get it.

It's mostly coincidence that he swapped cities with Artest, even if the outcome will forever be compared as a direct Lakers-Rockets trade of defensive-minded small forwards. There is an appeal to proving L.A. made a mistake by changing up a known winner, Ariza said -- "You can't worry about stuff like that. I try not to worry about that. But we're all human, so. ..." That's not why he signed with Houston, though.

He wanted the opportunity. Among the other teams that made serious bids, the Cavaliers have LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, the Raptors at the time had Chris Bosh and major investments in developing Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, before Hedo Turkoglu joined, and the Lakers, of course, had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Rockets had ... um ... an opening.

Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady are out until Make Your Best Guess and the top returning scorer who will be in uniform on opening night is Luis Scola, who averaged 12.7 points in 2008-09. Yao (19.7) is hurt. Artest (17.1) is gone. McGrady (15.6) is hurt.

That opening.

Ariza wants to show that he is more than the complementary piece who was sixth on the Lakers in scoring at 8.9 points -- he improved to 11.3 in the playoffs while shooting 49.7 percent overall and 47.6 on threes -- and Houston provided a platform the Cavaliers and Raptors could not. He said other teams offered more money. It's that the Rockets offered more possibilities.

"That had a lot to do with things," he said. "Also, I was looking for someone that really wanted me on their team. All the other teams showed me a lot of interest, but I was going to be pretty much the same thing as I was in L.A. And if I'm not going to be in L.A., I might as well try something different."

Meaning a bigger role.

"Yeah, definitely ... and it's still the same thing here. We still have Tracy McGrady on our team. Even though he's not 100 percent right now, he's going to be. With that being said, I'm still going to have to do more on the team."

The other part about expanding his horizons. New pressure.

Ariza was a second-round pick and has never been close to being a featured performer. His money moment was the '09 playoffs, but that was still as the fourth-leading scorer on the Lakers. Now, it'll be Ariza, Scola, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks and Yao replacement David Andersen, so he figures, with good reason, this will be the chance to expand his game.

It's no sure thing that Yao or McGrady will be back this season, or at all, so it may not be a temporary opportunity either. Ariza will play more than the 24.4 minutes he averaged during the Lakers' regular season, a number that climbed to 28 in the 20 starts and 31.4 in the playoffs. He and Battier will work defensively just as Artest and Battier harassed opposing wings.

But becoming that focal point is mandatory for any Rockets success, not just his hopes of breaking into a higher territory of relevance. A contract at $33.95 million makes it so. He got the new opportunity, plus everything that goes with it.

"I embrace it," Ariza said. "I'm ready for it. This is what every player in the NBA wants. A chance to be able to do more. I don't run away from all that stuff. I actually embrace it. I'm ready for it."

Trevor, you're up.

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