erry Buss recently said he would make the same decision 100 times out of 100: trading Shaquille O’Neal.
The former Laker center responded to the team’s owner by saying:
“He chose the young guy over the old guy. He won’t admit it, but that’s what it was about.’’
We’re now in the second season since the breakup and it remains hard to see how the Lakers are better off. They’re playing better than earlier in the season but lack an inside presence. A guy like O’Neal, for instance, who had 18 points and 17 rebounds when the Miami Heat defeated the Lakers on Christmas Day, 97-92.
O’Neal, the self-proclaimed old guy at 33, worries management by not staying in peak condition. He demanded the maximum contract permitted by league rules. The Lakers wondered how many more years he could play at a high level and decided to send him away.
There was, of course, O’Neal’s feud with the young guy, 27-year-old Kobe Bryant. Neither Buss nor Bryant has admitted Kobe wanted Shaq to leave as a condition of the young guy signing a new contract rather than exercising his right as a free agent to leave. But most people in the game and plenty of fans think that was the case.
At one time O’Neal was like a big brother to Bryant. Now their rift is strong. O’Neal shook hands with the other four Laker starters at the start of Sunday’s game. He didn’t shake hands with Bryant or look at him.
Asked about that in a television interview after the game O’Neal said nothing. Asked another question about it he replied: “Merry Christmas.’’
Without a powerful center in Bryant’s path he has more room to operate. He scored a career-high 62 points last week against Dallas and had 37 against Miami.
People still fill Staples Center and he is, without question, the main attraction.
However, neither the Lakers nor the Heat made it to the NBA Finals last season. Shaq and Kobe won three championships together and that’s what it is supposed to be about.
The Heat would appear to have a better chance now with Shaq, a quality backup center in Alonzo Mourning, a talented scorer in Dwayne Wade and the recent return of Pat Riley as coach.
When I traveled with the Lakers through all of Riley’s time as the head coach, I witnessed his fury as the playoffs arrived. Three-hour practices. No acceptance of anything but maximum effort. He carried it to extremes by not shaving during the playoffs because he was at war.
Phil Jackson’s credentials suggest the Laker coach has the same passion. You wonder, though, how far he can drive this team with only inconsistent Chris Mihm and disappointing Kwame Brown at center.
Bryant’s 62-point game, on a night when he had no assists, added to his reputation as a gunner. But he had nine assists in the next game and has been including teammates better in the last few weeks.
Bryant has been buying into Jackson’s idea of sharing the ball as Smush Parker, Devean George and particularly new starter Brian Cook have gained confidence in their shooting. Not in every game, but much more often than six weeks ago.
The Lakers won five of six games on a trip and have moved three games over the .500 mark, the first step in becoming a team that can be taken seriously.
When it seemed like they were closer to being a last place team than a first place team, they surged into contention in the Pacific Division. And the Clippers, who were safely ahead of them, went into a slump.
The next chapter in the Shaq-Kobe drama is scheduled for Jan. 16 at Staples Center. Since Eastern Conference and Western Conference teams meet only twice all season, it will be the last time they play each other this season unless both qualify for the NBA Finals.
I recall a night when Shaq and Kobe were teammates and the Lakers were in Philadelphia. Kobe had been a star player in high school there and the school, Lower Marion High, had a ceremony to retire his uniform. Shaq showed up with a camera – like a proud big brother.
That was then and the reality now is that those days are long gone.
Jim Buss, Jerry’s son who is being groomed to become the Lakers’ next owner, said in an early-season interview the team is targeting 2007 as the year it will be significantly under the salary cap and able to pursue high-profile free agents.
It would have against league rules for him to specify who he was talking about And he didn’t.
But two premier players heading for free agency – Amare Stoudamire of Phoenix and Yao Ming of Houston – have since signed new contracts with those teams.
That would appear to leave LeBron James of Cleveland – perhaps the best young player in the league – as a target. But the Cavaliers, aware he can become free then, spent heavily on free agents last summer to surround him with quality teammates.
Where does that leave the Lakers? With Kobe’s scoring and Jackson’s ability to blend talents into a competitive team.
The last time I looked, though, ticket prices remained the same – or higher – than when Shaq was here.