Ten years ago on July 14th, 2004, one of the most controversial trades in NBA history took place. It wasn’t because of the players that the Los Angeles Lakers received in return, but more because of the fanfare that caused the deal that sent away star center Shaquille O’Neal.
When O’Neal joined the Lakers in 1996, he joined the long line of big men to come through the city of angels, highlighted by George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain. That same off-season, the Lakers would acquire high school guard Kobe Bryant in a draft day trade after the Charlotte Hornets selected him 13th overall. From there, a piece of Lakers history would begin that was simply known as the “Kobe-Shaq era.”
For the next eight years, they would take the league by storm. With Phil Jackson at the helm, they would win three consecutive titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. They seemed to be the team of the millennium.
The team was very fun to watch whether you loved them or hated them. Sports fans were in awe of what this team could do. One of the highlight moments of the Shaq-Kobe era was this play in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
Everything seemed like it was going fine, until the 2003-2004 season. Shaq was unhappy that Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted him to take a pay cut in his next contract due to his age and increasing physical limitations that included numerous toe injuries were causing the future hall-of-fame center to miss games. He even reportedly yelled at Buss during a preseason game the phrase “Pay me.” There was also a growing rift between Bryant and O’Neal. Bryant would go onto call out Shaq in an interview before training camp that season, bashing his contract demands and his physical shape.
The tension was still there during the season, but anything that happened was behind the scenes. With the signings of Gary Payton and Karl Malone, everyone thought that the Lakers would capture championship gold. That would not be the case, as the Detroit Pistons would win the 2004 NBA Finals. Following the series, the tension seemed to reach a boiling point. Shaq was upset with how GM Mitch Kupchak was handling his future with the team and the fact that Phil Jackson was forced out by ownership due to increasing tension between him and Buss. These reasons and the tension with Kobe caused the star center to request a trade out of Los Angeles.
The Lakers would trade Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a future first round pick (Jordan Farmar). Butler spent one season in Los Angeles, averaging 15.5 PPG. We won’t discuss Odom’s off the court issues, but he was solid in his seven years there, averaging a double-double twice and winning two championships. Grant bounced around the league for the majority of his basketball career and last played for the Phoenix Suns in 2005. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2008. Farmer had two stints with the Lakers as a backup point guard. He is averaging 7.9 PPG through his career so far.
Shaq was the all-star presence that rising shooting guard Dwyane Wade needed as he ascended the ranks of NBA stardom. A championship was promised by O’Neal during his press conference, and he delivered. Injuries were not much of a concern for the 2004-2005 season, as he played in 73 games with averages of 24.1 PPG and 11 RPG. That, along with Wade’s 24.1 PPG, made the team relevant. It wouldn’t be until the 2005-2006 season that the Heat’s first NBA championship would arrive in Miami. Shaq missed time with injuries, but still showed up for the playoffs with 18.4 PPG and 9.8 RPG. The title was great, but his decline was obvious due to injuries and age.
He would only play in 40 games in the 2006-2007 season due to left knee surgery and put up career worsts in points, rebounds, and blocks per game. Only a half-season would be played in Miami before O’Neal was shipped to the Phoenix Suns in 2008. There was tension with Wade and Heat coach Pat Riley. An argument in practice was the final straw that led to the deal. Shaq would go onto play 103 games in Phoenix, then play with the Cleveland Cavaliers before finishing his career with the Boston Celtics.
There were many losers from O’Neal being shipped to Miami. The Lakers lost their star center who had helped lead them to three consecutive titles. While Odom had a nice career in LA, he was obviously never close to the player that Shaq was. They also have not found a steady big man to replace him. They drafted Andrew Bynum, who was turning into a star before injuries and pure idiocy tore that down in LA and in Philadelphia after the four team trade for Dwight Howard. He now has to fight for a spot on an NBA roster at the age of 26. Speaking of Howard, he had one tumultuous year in LA. The Lakers expected him to re-sign with them because of the money they could offer and because of the Laker brand, but he spurned that and went to Houston for less money. Chris Kaman was brought in to provide minutes at center last season, but that did not work out.
You can even say that O’Neal was a loser in this. Yes, he won a championship with Miami, but with his ego and preference for a certain contract, he lost his chance on continuing a dynasty with arguably the greatest coach of all-time and possibly the greatest shooting guard of all-time.
The biggest loser of all of this has to be the fans. Kobe, Phil, and Shaq got their titles out of this situation, but the NBA fans missed out on a possible continuation of a dynasty. Whether it would have lasted another two years before Shaq really broke down or not, it was one of the greatest pairings ever for the fans to watch. Their play kept you on the edge of your seat.
We could have witnessed Phil Jackson’s double digit championship number increase even further. We could have had the years of talk of “Can Kobe win without Shaq?” never be heard. Shaq’s rap about Kobe wouldn’t have to be re-played thousands of times because of how catchy it is. Most of all, we could have witnessed this team cement a deeper place in history.
Could we have seen them win another title? Maybe.
How about two titles? That seems possible.
It’s a lot of “what-ifs. Each one from this could be divided into separate pieces.
This past season, the Lakers retired Shaq’s number 34 jersey and placed it in the rafters with the other greats who played for them. It was a symbol that the two sides had fully put aside their differences and put to rest any tension.
O’Neal has been doing analyst work for TNT and NBA TV for the past three seasons, best known for his “Shaqtin’ A Fool” segments. He will likely enter the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame within the next few years.
Shaquille O’Neal had a great career and is one of the best players of all-time, but we always thought he could have been even better. So as NBA fans in 2014, ten years after the trade, we sit back and say “What if…?”