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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every Day

In 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM



At Thursday, January 10, 2008 12:34:00 PM, Blogger OldeLkrFn said...

I love to read your posts, because you support your opinions with facts. Sounds simple enough, but in todays "ESPN" dominated sportsworld, this is becoming increasingly rare.

Anyways, I wanted to also throw in the fact that Bynum, though indirectly, was acquired because of the Shaq trade. The Lakers did not make the playoffs the following season, and took Bynum with the # 9 pick. Any other scenario,and that definately would not have happened. I know that is kind of a stretch, but it is worth pointing out.

At Thursday, January 10, 2008 2:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is sad but true that fact based writing has become increasingly rare. Thank you for your support.

The Bynum point is indeed worth mentioning, because drafting him fit in with the Lakers' long term strategy of rebuilding around Kobe, even if many people (including Kobe himself) at times questioned if choosing Bynum was the right way to go. A Kobe-Bynum duo, supported by the Lakers' productive bench, certainly looks much better than the Wade-Shaq duo looks right now. If the Lakers continue to progress to the status of a legitimate championship caliber team--which looks possible but is not assured--then they will have accomplished the very difficult task of rebuilding without becoming a terrible, non-playoff team (other than the first year without Shaq, which was sabotaged by injuries to Kobe and Odom and the coaching staff turmoil).

At Thursday, January 10, 2008 3:18:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

In your post this past summer about whether this will be known as the "Shaq Era" or the "Duncan Era", it should be pointed out that with the Lakers seemingly on the rise, it's quite possible the post Jordan-era very well may historically be looked at as the "Kobe Era".

While I think the Spurs would be the favorites to win it again this year and don't think the Lakers have enough experience to win just yet, I think another year of experience for the young Laker players and the Kobe-Bynum combo could very well make the Lakers the dominant team in the NBA. If that happens, provided there aren't any big ego clashes like there were with Shaq and Kobe, then it is quite conceivable to think the Lakers might win a few more titles in the next 5+ years. If Kobe retires with the Lakers having won 6 or 7 titles, that very well could eclipse both Shaq's and Duncan's outputs.

At Thursday, January 10, 2008 4:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

You are right that there is a chance that the post-Jordan era could be known as the Kobe era. Kobe's name will certainly be mentioned prominently based on what he has already achieved. He and the Lakers aren't quite yet at championship level but they are moving in the right direction.

My main point in the earlier post is that Shaq could have basically assured that he would be remembered as the dominant figure of the immediate post-Jordan era just by displaying the focus that Jordan himself had (and that Kobe has). Shaq's inattention to his conditioning has allowed Duncan to position himself as the dominant figure of this era. As I indicated in that post, this is not about who would win one on one if the two players played against each other with both being in their primes; this is about which player creates a greater legacy, a more impressive overall body of work encompassing team and individual accomplishments.

At Thursday, January 10, 2008 5:42:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

David, I think you made a great point in that earlier post, and I completely agreed with you. Your point about what might have happened with the Lakers if Shaq had not healed "on company time" and whether prolonged success with the Lakers might have led to the breakup of the Spurs (and not the other way around) was a great one.

IMO Shaq's general laziness relative to his physical gifts has severely undercut what his real mark on the game could have been, which I believe could have been the game's all time best player. With the physical gifts that Shaq had, if he had also had Kobe's or Jordan's work ethic he would have been someone nobody would have ever been able to contend with, and his teams would have won many many championships while he won the MVP award year after year. The fact that Shaq never once led the league in rebounds or blocks (even Chris Webber and Shawn Bradley managed to do one or the other) and only truly deserved the league MVP once is a testament to ultimately how far short of Shaq's true potential he really came. That he was as incredibly dominant as he was even without really applying himself speaks volumes about what he could have been.

At Friday, January 11, 2008 12:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

Either in a previous post or in the comments section to a previous post, I made exactly the same point that you just did: if Shaq had possessed the same drive/work ethic that Kobe does then there simply would have been no way for opponents to deal with him. Shaq was quite a load for many years even with his questionable work ethic and if he had kept himself in prime condition then he would have missed fewer games and would have been even more dominant when he played.

There is no question that both he and Kobe have large egos and that this contributed to the tension between them--but the general public simply does not understand that a fundamental point of contention between them was how differently they approached the game. Kobe is literally obsessed with improving his game, while Shaq has always had a tendency to coast for stretches and then pick things up when he thinks that it is necessary. Part of Kobe's frustration with Bynum last year was that Kobe did not really see evidence of much of a work ethic on Bynum's part. That has changed this season and, as I reported after the Lakers visited Indiana early in the season, Kobe has been a mentor for Bynum in ways that Shaq never mentored the young Kobe. None of this really fits into any storyline that the mainstream media is interested in telling, so even though some of these facts have been reported they are never emphasized over and over in the way that we are continually bombarded with nonsense saying that Kobe is selfish, that he "broke up" the Lakers and so forth. Remember at the start of the season when all we heard was that Kobe was going to play poorly or maybe even sit out because he was unhappy with his situation? I immediately said that those reports were nonsense; anyone who has followed Kobe's career understands that he is way too competitive to do anything like that.

At Friday, January 11, 2008 2:14:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

David, your feelings about Kobe, especially in regards to the whole "breakup of the Lakers" and Shaq and all that are one of the main reasons I love your blog and read it regularly. As oldelkrfn said, it's "fact based reporting". Anyone who has really watched the Lakers over the years can see that Kobe has always just wanted to win, and his frustrations with Shaq were rooted in the fact that Shaq didn't want to put in the work required to win. Shaq was content to be "good enough" rather than great.

I think Kobe is now secure enough in himself to know if the Lakers do win a title in the next couple years people will see it as his team; but I also believe that if Bynum does work hard and does eventually become the focal point of the Lakers then Kobe won't have a problem stepping aside and riding him to a few more titles. After all, if Kobe wins 4 or more titles between now and when he retires (maybe more than 10 years from now) then that's more than Jordan and Kobe's place in history and his legacy will be secure, and it will be quite hard in the future to argue that the post-Jordan era was not "the Kobe era" as opposed to the Shaq or Duncan eras.

At Friday, January 11, 2008 2:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

We don't even have to speculate about whether or not Kobe would be willing to step back as a scorer in order for his team to win because we have seen multiple examples of this:

1) Kobe was the leading playmaker on the three most recent Lakers championship teams. He did not have a problem with Shaq being the focal point of the offense; he had a problem with Shaq when Shaq was out of shape and expected Kobe to slow down and wait for him to lumber up court. When Shaq was in position in the paint, Kobe fed him the ball--and did so very well.

2) Kobe took a back seat as a scorer with Team USA and focused on being a lockdown defender against the opposing team's best guard.

3) Kobe's scoring average this season has declined and he is quite happy about the increased support that has enabled him to take fewer shots. Kobe's scoring declined at the start of last season, too, but after all of the injuries set in Phil Jackson basically turned Kobe loose in the second half of the season and NBA fans witnessed a post All-Star break scoring barrage that has not been seen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain (a stat that I have brought up a few times here but most people do not seem to know about--Kobe averaged more ppg after the All-Star break last season than anyone had in more than 40 years and those points were essential to help the Lakers make the playoffs).

At Sunday, January 13, 2008 10:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

kobe era lol he has to win 2 more rings to me to be that. shaq is the man right now as far as career not as a player now. the lakers look good right now they knew long term it benfited them short term it benifited miami. miam won their title there happy from that perspective but it will be a long way back to the top for them they over estimated shaq. who has declined really fast now, but if the lakers dont win a title or two this will not be looked at as a good trade and shaq will always say i got it done and they didnt and you can forget kobe era talk and everything else. so it's still yet to be seen who truly got the better end the lakers could of signed shaq to a 3 year deal in 04 and got another ring at least and maye two since miami almost did. but kobe got a few years left and bynum on the rise like he is the lakers did the right thing if they win the ring.


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