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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Payton's Place

Gary Payton, the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year and a nine-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team, played excellent defense against Kobe Bryant in the Miami Heat's 97-92 victory over the L.A. Lakers. Bryant finished with 37 points but shot 12-30 from the field--including 0-8 on three pointers--and only scored 13 points in the second half. Payton also made a significant offensive contribution, with a game-high 21 points on blazing 9-11 shooting.

Dwyane Wade had 18 points, but seemed out of sorts for much of the game, shooting only 5-15 and committing a flagrant foul against Bryant early in the third quarter; just prior to that Bryant had caught Wade in the head with an elbow while jostling for post position but was not whistled for a foul. Wade's foul was his fourth of the game and right after that he received a technical foul and Coach Pat Riley sat him down for the rest of the quarter.

Miami is now 3-0 versus the Lakers since Los Angeles traded Shaq to the Heat. The circumstances that led to that move are still disputed by O'Neal and the Lakers organization, as shown by some of the recent public comments issued by both sides. Lakers owner Jerry Buss said, "I think Laker fans are going to say 'OK, let's see now who was right,' but to me it's obvious I did the right thing. I'd make the same decision 100 out of 100 times. To me, the risk-reward ratio wasn't there. It was not only a question of whether the man was going to be in shape, but what were his true salary demands going to be." In an interview with Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak explained, "If we extended Shaquille, which would have been at the time three years beyond the two years he had remaining, that would be five more years with him. And in this business, great players lead to winning seasons, winning games, lead to rewards which are contract extensions where they get increases. And that's all fine and good until you get to a certain age where you don't want to look around and have your great players at advanced ages locked up for huge amounts of dollars. That's when it starts to get scary and that's what we wanted to avoid--where we would financially strap our flexibility with the franchise. And we in fact offered Shaquille a two year extension to make him the highest paid player in the league. And he wasn't able to accept that deal. He wanted the third year and we weren't willing to do the third year. So that led to the trade."

O'Neal fired back that Buss is not an "honest businessman" because he won't say the real reason behind the trade and, noting that he won three Finals MVPs with the Lakers, concluded, "He had to make a choice, the young guy or the old guy. He made his choice and good luck with his choice." Although Shaq suggested that Buss is lying, when Shaq says that Buss chose the "young guy" (Bryant) he is in fact agreeing with what Buss and Kupchak stated; making a strategic choice to go with the "young guy" is not at all the same thing as being forced into a corner because Bryant was unwilling to play with Shaq and issued some kind of explicit or veiled ultimatum that the Lakers trade Shaq or else. The bottom line is that, contrary to what is repeated ad nauseum, there is no evidence that Kobe forced the Lakers to choose between keeping him or Shaq. It is clear that he did not run off Coach Phil Jackson, either, since Jackson is now back on the Lakers bench and has the team playing much better than it did last year, particularly on defense.

Buss determined that Shaq would not be worth $20 million or more per year three or four years from now. Truthfully, is he worth that even now? Shaq had 18 points and 17 rebounds versus the Lakers. He is not as dominant as he was a few years ago, is carrying extra weight and he seems to be more prone to injury; it is unlikely that he will become more dominant, lose weight or become healthier in the coming years. If Shaq does not lead the Heat to a title then what kind of return does the Heat franchise have on their substantial investment? The Heat are considered to be legitimate title contenders and the Lakers are supposed to be a rebuilding team, yet the Lakers played the Heat right down to the wire; if you watched the game without knowing the back story would you really think that one team is appreciably better than the other? This is probably as good as it will get for Miami. Shaq may very well play a little better as the year goes on and he rounds into shape--but he could also get hurt again and miss more games. The Lakers have one of the youngest rosters in the league and seem to be improving week by week. Shaq and the Heat are no doubt thrilled for winning today's battle but only time will tell if they have won the war; if the Heat don't win a title with Shaq and the Lakers are back in the Finals in three years, Buss will literally be laughing all the way to the bank.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:47 PM

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