The story of Shaq leaving the Los Angeles Lakers virtually at the top of the team’s greatness is one of the most well-known, but probably least understood – stories of the NBA. Now one of the people at the center of that story has told it again, with a different bit of insight. Thanks to our friends at CBS Sports for original reporting on this story. (Link to their full post is below.)
A big part of the story has always been the relationship between Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant, both on and off the court. Together, the pair won three consecutive titles with the Lakers, yet things apparently got ugly after the NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004. That summer, Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat. O’Neal would go on to win a title in Miami, then play for several other teams in the later years of his career.
So… why did the big man leave LA? Most NBA fans think it was a personality “clash of titans” between Shaq and Kobe… that the team and the town just wasn’t big enough for two egos of that size.
But that’s not the story told by current Lakers President and owner Jeanie Buss. Her father, the late Doctor Jerry Buss, was the team owner back in those glory years. Now, on a recent podcast, Jennie Buss is telling a very different story. On the “All the Smoke” podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, Buss said the decision to trade Shaq did not come from Kobe, but instead it was a strictly financial move.
Here’s Buss on the show: “[O’Neal] wanted an amount of money that was legal under the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) but it wasn’t what my dad wanted to pay him. And so it came to the point where the decision was made to trade Shaq. A lot of people want to put that blame on Kobe. It wasn’t. It was purely a money situation.”
At that time, (summer of 2004), the L.A. Times reported the team and Shaq were about $9 million apart on trade extension negotiations. That “extension” part of Shaq’s contract was apparently what made all the difference. O’Neal still had two seasons remaining on his contract, with a player option for the final year, but was apparently put off by the Lakers’ offer.
Of course back in the day, O’Neal did make some on-the-record comments that suggested Kobe was at least partially involved with the decision to make the trade.
Here’s Shaq back in June 2004: “The direction they’re going in, if they’re going to continue to go in the same direction, I don’t want to be a part of this. This team, it ain’t about me. It ain’t about Phil [Jackson, the coach]. It’s supposed to be about team.”
There have been a lot of words – even a few books – about the Shaq / Lakers breakup. In a TV special in 2018, O’Neal apologized to Bryant for being “an a–hole,” and said they were the “most dominant 1-2 punch, little-big, ever created in the game.”
Yes, Shaq had more great seasons after leaving the Lakers, including that Championship season with the Heat. Still, what would NBA history have been had he stayed with LA and Kobe? Certainly one of the juiciest “what ifs” in basketball history.