Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every DayIn 2004, Lakers owner Jerry Buss decided to not sign Shaquille O'Neal for maximum years at maximum dollars and instead build the team around Kobe Bryant. The Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a draft pick (which became Jordan Farmar) and signed Bryant to a max extension. The "instant analysis" at that time was that no team should ever get rid of a dominant big man--but this ignored two important facts that were central considerations to Buss: (1) He does not have the financial resources to exceed the salary cap and thus pay the dollar for dollar luxury tax; (2) O'Neal's age and questionable work habits made it highly likely that his days of dominance were almost over and certainly would not last the entire life of a long term contract. Keeping O'Neal at full price would have meant losing Kobe Bryant--not because Bryant was unwilling to play with O'Neal but because Buss would not have been able to pay the max salary to both players. Anyone who wants to know the true story behind the "breakup of the Lakers" must read two posts: Let the Truth be Told and Will This be Remembered as the Tim Duncan Era or the Shaquille O'Neal Era?
My take on Buss' decision has been consistent from the outset: the O'Neal trade must be looked at as a short term deal for Miami--with a two to three year maximum window for success--but a long term deal for the Lakers, who might not reap the full benefit for at least three years. In other words, this was not a zero sum proposition in which one team would "win" and the other team would "lose"; it was entirely possible that both teams could "win" or both teams could "lose." This is what I wrote during the 2006 playoffs (right before O'Neal and the Heat won the NBA title):
Purely based on production there is no question that O’Neal is overpaid. He is receiving the NBA’s top salary but is clearly not the NBA’s best player. However, Miami’s ultimate goal in acquiring him is to win the championship, so the latter part of his career must be looked at in that context. Riley signed O’Neal and then came down from the Heat’s executive offices to coach Wade, O’Neal and the veteran-laden roster that he assembled around his two stars.
Riley’s reasoning can be summarized by borrowing from a popular advertising campaign: Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless.
Here is one example of my take on the deal from the Lakers' perspective, in a post written just after Phil Jackson returned from his one year hiatus to coach the Lakers:
Now that Jackson will again be coaching Kobe and the Lakers, it is much less plausible to suggest that Kobe "exiled" Jackson in the first place. Even when Jackson was coaching the Bulls he often spoke of the need to take a hiatus to rejuvenate himself; it is increasingly clear that he decided on his own to leave. On the other hand, he would not come back to the Lakers unless he believes that a Kobe Bryant-led team has a good chance to be successful. Jackson had his choice of coaching jobs around the NBA and by electing to take the Lakers' job it is obvious that he does not feel as negatively about Bryant as a player, teammate and leader as many in the media and general public do...
No one would argue that the current Lakers are a championship contending squad. What will the critics say about Jackson--and Kobe--if the Lakers win a title in the next 2-3 years?
It is now "2-3 years later," making this an appropriate time to evaluate how Buss' decision turned out. The Heat have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and O'Neal's career is literally and figuratively on its last legs. Keep in mind that O'Neal's contract extends out for two more years and $40 million. Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury was more serious than initially reported and it is not clear when--or if--he will be the player that he was when he won the 2006 Finals MVP. The Heat are a bad team that shows every sign of being bad for the foreseeable future. Miami's ownership has the financial wherewithal to pay O'Neal and the Heat did win a title with him, so from the short term aspect the trade was a success. However, there is a long term price to pay and the Heat are only just beginning to deal with that burden. Any thought that O'Neal and Wade would combine to win multiple titles turned out to be a pipe dream and, in retrospect, they are quite fortunate to have captured even one championship; don't forget that the Heat were down 2-0 to Dallas in the 2006 Finals and trailing deep into game three before Wade took over. O'Neal won three straight championships with Bryant and that total could easily have been greater if not for O'Neal's fateful decision to heal a 2002 toe injury "on company time," a choice that wrecked the 2002-03 season and effectively was the beginning of the end of the Lakers' run.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are currently a game and a half behind the Suns for first place in the Pacific Division. The Lakers have won both head to head meetings with the Suns and are increasingly being recognized as a legitimate Western Conference contender this season. ESPN ran an interesting graphic that indicates how much more depth the Lakers have now compared to recent seasons. In 2004-05, the Lakers went just 5-15 when Bryant scored fewer than 20 points. They went 1-3 in such games the next season and 5-7 in 2006-07--but so far in 2007-08 they are 8-1, a development that thrills Bryant, who had this to say after the Lakers' 109-80 win over the Hornets on Wednesday: "I'm not the guy who has to go out and score 35-something points. They come to me to get buckets when we need a little boost here and there and that's as it should be." Bryant had 19 points, seven rebounds and a game-high seven assists in that contest. For the past two seasons, Bryant was widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as the best player in the league but he did not win the MVP because his team did not win at least 50 games. The Lakers are currently on pace for 55 wins. Bryant's scoring average is down from his league-leading pace of the past two seasons but he still ranks third in the NBA in that category while topping the Lakers in assists and steals. Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team last year and said that his goal this season is to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. That honor has recently gone primarily to shotblocking big men but if Bryant continues to play this way and the Lakers go on to win 50-55 games there will be absolutely no excuse to not vote for him for MVP. It would be the height of irony--and stupidity--if the voters look more at Bryant's declining scoring average than the key role that he is playing in the Lakers' success.
It remains to be seen if the Lakers are in fact legitimate contenders and whether or not Bryant will lead them to another championship at some point. Still, we already know enough to issue a much more authoritative verdict on the O'Neal trade than the snap judgments that many people made several years ago. The trade was a short term success for the Heat, but the franchise will have to deal with long term negative ramifications from tying up so much money in O'Neal; the trade has been a long term success for the Lakers, who made the playoffs the past two seasons while rebuilding and now appear to have developed into a strong team.
The bottom line is this: based on all of the considerations involved, the Lakers were smart to not re-sign O'Neal for max years at max dollars--and the Heat's calculated risk in doing so was rewarded with a championship. Barring other trades/signings, if the Heat had not signed O'Neal, their current nucleus would be Wade-Butler-Odom; if the Lakers had signed O'Neal and let Bryant walk due to financial considerations, they likely would have no All-Stars and would be as bad or worse than the Heat are now--and without ever having won a title, because O'Neal by himself without another All-Star would not have led the Lakers past the first round in the West, let alone helped them to win a championship, something that he was barely able to do playing in the East with Dwayne Wade at his peak.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM