The Lakers, who haven't reached the NBA finals since 1991, became instant contenders for the NBA title after signing Shaquille O'Neal to a $120-million, seven-year contract Thursday. But whether they're about to win their first title since 1988 is a matter of opinion.
"Obviously, the Lakers are much improved," San Antonio Spur center David Robinson said.
"Maybe Jerry West felt he had to make some big changes. Shaq will be able to run more in the Western Conference, have more freedom to get down the floor. The Lakers are definitely going to be a tougher team."
How much tougher, Boston Celtic President Red Auerbach isn't sure. Auerbach, who led the Celtics to nine NBA titles, doesn't think signing O'Neal guarantees the Lakers a championship.
"I don't think any one player today can do it," Auerbach said. "Michael Jordan, as great as he is, has got to be surrounded by [Scottie] Pippen and guys like that.
"They've got to start from scratch, they've got to build a ballclub around this guy now. They've got Shaquille O'Neal, but who else have they got left? They've got a lot of work to do. Just because they got this guy do you think they're going to win a championship right away? I don't think so.
"Hey, I love Jerry West and I like [Laker owner] Jerry Buss and [Laker special consultant Bill] Sharman is one of my boys, but I'm just calling it the way I see it.
"They think that just because they got this guy it's all over, but there's an awful lot of work to do in building a ballclub. It will take a while to get organized. It's not an easy thing."
O'Neal's record contract and Michael Jordan's $30-million, one-year deal are likely to help other players secure better contracts.
"I think it's great for Shaq," Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone said. "There are guys that haven't done a whole lot who are getting a whole lot of money. So a guy like him, he deserves it and more power to him."
Auerbach thinks the NBA salary structure is absurd.
"Whatever Michael got, he got because they owed it to him," Auerbach said. "Sure, it's gotten out of hand, but Michael wasn't one of the top 15 players last year in terms of salary, and you know that shouldn't be."
The Lakers, who posted the fourth-best record in the Western Conference last season, should challenge the defending Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics next season with the addition of O'Neal, who averaged 26.6 points last season and led the Magic to the 1995 NBA finals.
"I think it's a tremendous bonanza for the Lakers and L.A. basketball fans and the NBA," said former Cal coach and one-time Laker assistant Pete Newell, who has worked with O'Neal at his big man's camp in Hawaii. "Having Shaquille in this market is a very important thing for the NBA.
"The expectations will be raised for the Lakers, but that goes with the territory. He'll play as good as he can, and that's pretty damn good. but I don't think he's going to feel any burden of taking the team all the way by himself, and I don't think anybody expect that.
"To get to the finals, you really have to be strong in the middle. This reminds me of when I was with the Lakers and we lost one of the premier centers in Wilt Chamberlain and we had a young center replace him and we knew that we were not going to be able to go too far. We had to get a premier center like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. Once you get a center, then you can fit around him."
Although O'Neal has been criticized for being one-dimensional, Newell thinks he has a well-rounded game.
"I'd like to know a center in the NBA who has any more moves than him," Newell said. "He's got spin moves, he's got power moves and a step back. People say he dunks too much, but if you can dunk the ball like he can, why wouldn't you dunk it a lot.
"People say he doesn't have much of a game, but it's all because he doesn't shoot foul shots too well, but he didn't invent that problem. A lot of great centers have had that same problem and have led their teams to championships and I think he will too. He's the first big move in bringing back an NBA championship to L.A."