LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant is a free agent, and has reportedly narrowed his choices to the Lakers and the Clippers. But his decision just became much tougher, because suddenly it is almost impossible to tell the two clubs apart.
The Lakers completed a blockbuster deal Wednesday, sending their star center, Shaquille O’Neal, to the Miami Heat in exchange for three bodies. Because of this, Los Angeles’ two NBA franchises are virtually identical.
Both clubs are owned by buffoons, although this is a relatively new development in Lakerland. Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ owner, had long been considered among the tops in his field, yet whenever he issues a directive lately, you expect to see two orderlies with butterfly nets sneaking up behind him.
He just traded away any chance his team will have to win another championship in his lifetime.
Granted, Buss has presided over eight titles since he bought the club, so maybe he doesn’t care and would rather embrace the Donald T. Sterling philosophy of ownership, which states that an NBA franchise is just a cocktail party with 19,000 paying guests.
Actually, that’s not a fair characterization. The Celtics made a few blunders over the years, most notably hiring Rick Pitino and giving him control over personnel decisions. But they can’t be blamed for the tragedies that took Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. And they’ve never done anything quite so asinine as to first insult, and then trade away, the most dominant center in the game, all to placate a 25-year-old diva superstar who is possibly facing years in prison on a sexual assault charge.
No, the level of folly the Lakers have degenerated to with the way they handled the Shaq situation is so reminiscent of a Sterling move that it’s a wonder they don’t try to lure Benoit Benjamin out of retirement.
The Lakers receive forwards Lamar Odom and Brian Grant, guard Caron Butler and a first-round draft pick in 2006 or later. They will presumably join Bryant –- assuming he’s pleased that the owner did somersaults to reconfigure the team to his specifications and re-signs –- on a team that has no center and big questions elsewhere.
Odom is a fine player, but he’s one bong hit away from a lifetime ban, having been suspended twice already for drug use. Grant is an average power forward who was often asked to play center in Miami out of need. Butler is a talented guard, but not All-Star caliber. All three together do not add up to one Shaquille O’Neal. Not even close.
With Shaq, the Lakers had the perfect one-two punch in he and Kobe. Without him, they’re the Clippers, a team with adequate talent but no real identity, hoping just to earn a playoff berth, knowing they don’t have nearly enough to beat clubs like Minnesota, San Antonio, Houston, Sacramento or Detroit in a seven-game playoff series.
This isn’t to absolve O’Neal of culpability. He made his own bed. He’s fat, lazy and can’t shoot free throws. He was arrogant enough to demand a contract extension before last season even though he had three years remaining on his current deal, the final two upcoming worth $57 million. He’s 32, and he doesn’t handle the rigors of the 82-game regular season with the gusto that he once did.
Also, he stuck it to Bryant during training camp when the news broke of the accusations from Colorado. O’Neal was less than supportive, and that aggravated the friction in their relationship.
Still, Buss should have mended fences, talked to his superstars and tried to impress upon both the uniqueness of their partnership. With the two of them, and Phil Jackson, more championships could have been in their future, with some skillful tinkering of the rest of the roster.
Instead, the Lakers have taken a nosedive. Instead of quarreling with one of the great centers in the game’s history over who should get the ball more often, now Bryant will not have an inside presence for opposing defenses to respect, and will have to share the basketball with other perimeter players like Butler, Odom and Gary Payton. It seems unlikely, too, that Karl Malone will return for another season without Shaq in the middle.
It’s tempting to look at Miami and come to the conclusion that it gave up too much in pursuit of O’Neal, but really, all three of those players it discarded are easily replaceable. What the Heat now has is what the Lakers used to have –- a fabulous inside-outside star combination of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. Naturally, Heat president Pat Riley will have to add more firepower, but it’s much easier to build when you already have a foundation. It’s also easier to sell tickets.
The Lakers don’t have that solid base anymore. They have dropped from the elite. They’re an also-ran.
The only satisfactory result in trading a superstar of Shaq’s magnitude would have been to receive a superstar in return, somebody like Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki or the Heat’s own Wade, who displayed that kind of promise as a rookie. Instead, the Lakers settled for an underwhelming assortment of players whose combined salaries came close enough to O’Neal’s to justify the trade under NBA guidelines.
Why? Because they were getting close to July 14, when Kobe Bryant can sign a contract. They wanted Shaq out of the Lakers’ employ so Kobe would feel comfortable coming back. They could have insisted that Shaq fulfill the next year of his contract, but they didn’t want to risk alienating Kobe. So they alienated Shaq instead, and then they traded him away.
As far as the Clippers, they should be elated. They don’t have to worry about catching up with the Lakers anymore. They’re the Lakers’ equals, and they didn’t have to lift a finger.
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