Death of a dynasty
O'Neal upset by direction, won't be the 'scapegoat'
By Howard Beck
EL SEGUNDO -- Shaquille O'Neal, the cornerstone of three championship teams and the most dominant big man in the NBA, wants to be traded, and the Lakers intend to honor his request.
A team source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said O'Neal made the trade demand late Thursday through his agent, Perry Rogers. The same source said the Lakers intend to pursue a deal immediately.
In a telephone interview Friday morning, a somber O'Neal said he "never" called it a demand, but he made his desires absolutely clear.
"The direction they're going, if they're going to continue going in the wrong direction, I don't want to be a part of this," O'Neal said. "So I want you guys to write that if any GM out there wants a hard-working big man who wants to win championships, call Mitch Kupchak, because he will entertain offers."
Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager, said Thursday that he could not rule out trading O'Neal. While Kupchak was referring then to a hypothetical demand -- which had not yet been delivered -- O'Neal was insulted and infuriated by the comments.
"I don't think this is about me at this point, because Mitch said he would entertain offers," O'Neal said. "Everybody knows I love L.A. ... That's just Mitch using me as a scapegoat. But don't believe it."
Kupchak declined to comment Friday. Rogers is out of the country and was unavailable for comment.
O'Neal's business manager, Mike Parris, said no demands have been made, but summed up his client's agenda this way: "He wants to go to a place where they're interested in building a team to win, and they're not interested in individuals. If the Lakers' intent isn't to build a team, then it might be time to part ways."
A day earlier, Kupchak refused to rule out trading O'Neal but said, "That would not be a good day in this club's history. ... Players do have that option (to demand a trade), and we'll see what happens."
Within the organization, O'Neal's stance is viewed as anger over stalled contract negotiations. The team and O'Neal have been unable to agree to terms on an extension. O'Neal was seeking the maximum allowable -- about $77 million over two years.
The team, concerned with O'Neal's age (32) and declining production, wanted him to take a significant pay cut.
According to a team source, the contract extension offer is no longer on the table. However, the team had intended to keep O'Neal through the final two years of his contract until now.
During the course of Friday's 10-minute interview, O'Neal cited everything but money. He never mentioned Kobe Bryant either, but he hinted frequently at discord within the team and the effect of Bryant's desire to reshape it.
The Lakers parted ways with coach Phil Jackson on Friday, the first step in a purge designed to keep Bryant happy and in Los Angeles. Bryant has exercised an option to become a free agent July 1.
Owner Jerry Buss has not spoken publicly, but those familiar with his thinking say he plans to do everything necessary to re-sign Bryant. That shift in power seemed foremost on O'Neal's mind.
"I told you guys when I first got here, I'm all about winning championships," O'Neal said. "The organization now is different. It seems they're trying to pit one guy against another. ... I don't want to be part of that. Right now, they're not talking the team concept."
"When I was brought in by Jerry West, it was always a team concept," O'Neal said. "This isn't about respect or extensions. ... My last six or seven years I'm going to be in the league, I want to be on a great team."
It is regarded as a given by sources close to both stars that neither one wanted to play with the other. Indeed, while Bryant's disapproval of Jackson was the primary factor in the coach's dismissal, his greatest source of frustration is O'Neal, team sources said.
Even as they won three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, O'Neal and Bryant sparred constantly, both in private and through the media.
It was Jackson's steady hand that kept the team from imploding through years of infighting. It was Jackson's willingness to rein in Bryant's sometimes-wild play that endeared him to O'Neal and alienated him from Bryant.
Over the past few years, O'Neal has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to Jackson, saying he would not play for another coach. And he was disturbed when it became clear that Jackson would not be invited back.
"It affects me a lot," O'Neal said. "Phil's a guy that's taken me to the next level. To let our leader go means something's not right."
He added, "I think the fans deserve better. This should be about the team."
Trading O'Neal will be difficult.
Under the extension he signed in 2000, O'Neal is due $29.5 million next season and $32.4 million in 2005-06. To move him to another team over the salary cap, the Lakers would have to take back players whose combined salaries are close to O'Neal's for next season.
Further complicating matters is that O'Neal can opt out of his contract next summer, which means a team trading for him could lose O'Neal after just one season. His new employer would also have to consider O'Neal's contract extension demands. As of July 1, he'll be eligible for a three-year deal worth more than $100 million.
Derek Fisher, a teammate of both Bryant and O'Neal since they all arrived in the summer of 1996, said a trade of the league's best center and three-time Finals MVP was hard to envision.
"Getting it done without Shaq seems to be extremely difficult. I think Orlando found that out the hard way," Fisher said, referring to O'Neal's defection in 1996. "And hopefully the Lakers won't have to find that out, in terms of not having a team with Shaq on it."