Kobe Bryant isn’t the only one who has wondered what it might be like away from the Lakers.
Shaquille O’Neal, furious about his diminishing role in the Laker offense, told General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson that he wanted to be traded, in separate conversations, after a Dec. 28 game at Phoenix.
Kupchak confirmed O’Neal’s demand, and said he did not seriously contemplate it, believing O’Neal was merely venting his season-long frustration with the offense in general and Bryant in particular. Indeed, he said, O’Neal, who signed a three-year, $88.4-million extension in October, has not followed up on the demand in the two weeks since.
“You have to take the conversation for what the moment was,” Kupchak said. “Never for a second did I consider it. This is something that will be worked out. There haven’t been and there will be no discussions about trading anyone. Period.”
Kupchak has not been contacted by O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato, and assumes O’Neal has dismissed the notion of a trade. O’Neal refused comment Thursday at the Laker practice facility in El Segundo, where there were at least two meetings--one for players only and another with Jackson present--held in part to clear the air between O’Neal and Bryant.
In that Dec. 28 game, the Lakers defeated the Suns, 115-78. Bryant made 12 of 19 shots and scored 38 points. O’Neal took 14 shots and scored 18 points, but played much of a meaningless fourth quarter to get there.
It speaks to O’Neal’s frustration that he was angry enough to issue the ultimatum after a 37-point victory. It hasn’t entirely subsided. Bryant and O’Neal practiced side by side Thursday, but Jackson said he was irritated by the events of the previous 48 hours.
“We do have some anger,” he said. “Shaq is angry. You can see it in his demeanor. I think you can hear it in his voice. He’s got to find a way to work himself out of that.”
As the players walked from the practice facility to the parking lot, most guessed the rift between the two stars would mend, gradually. Bryant said he held no grudge against O’Neal.
“What we do is grow from it and leave it behind,” Bryant said. “It’s something we can’t let drag on.”
Rick Fox, who has occasionally tried to coax the relationship along, seemed disheartened by the latest, public discord.
“Until this is worked out, it’s an added pressure they don’t need,” Fox said. “They can make each other’s jobs a lot easier by just having a healthy respect for each other.”
One Laker called the simmering feud “juvenile, all juvenile,” and another said that few players were picking sides, as they once had. They merely want Bryant and O’Neal to coexist for two or three hours a day.
“They are the two stars, the two main guys, and they need to cut this stuff out,” Rider said, smiling. “They are too good to cry about the things they are crying about. No one can steal the show here. It’s a team. It’s silly.”
He did, however, offer a harsh assessment of Bryant’s play.
“It’s not about turning his game down, it’s about not needing 30 shots a night,” Rider said. “That’s just not good basketball. You can get 29 points and eight assists instead of 29 points and one assist. Kobe needs to take a step back and look at that.”
All agreed that this was a job for Jackson, who in Chicago cleared the way for Michael Jordan’s personality, and then his game.
“I’m not concerned,” Kupchak said. “There’s not a problem that can’t be solved or rectified. These are natural occurrences in the development of a team that has great players. Some are evolving, some have already evolved. It’s a natural progression. Sometimes it’s very smooth and sometimes it’s not smooth, but it takes time.
“Part of the reason we have--if not the major reason we have--the coach we have is because of this. This is a team that needs an experienced, strong coach who in the past has dealt with similar issues.”
A day after O’Neal’s suggesting Bryant was selfish and Bryant’s countering as harshly, Jackson said that he was upset with the team, the media and the NBA, the latter for allowing the media the access it does. Mostly, however, he appeared bent on the task of rebuilding the team psyche, damaged by uneven play and the continuous infighting. The Lakers are 23-11, well off last season’s 67-15 pace.
“This is juvenile stuff,” Jackson said. “This is really juvenile stuff, isn’t it? It’s like sandbox stuff. ‘You’ve got my truck and I want it back or I’m going to throw sand in your face.’ It’s silly. Let’s get on and be men about our business and appreciate the talent we have and play ball together. That’s all I’m trying to do. In the process, I just have to take the order over and say, ‘It’s my job to sit in judgment over you guys and that’ll be what I do.’ This is my responsibility now.
“It’s not a serious problem. But it could be a serious problem. That’s the thing that’s irritating. This city has two of the best players who play in the NBA right now--and it keeps on burning. We just want it to go away and start playing some ball.”
After Thursday’s meetings, Jackson said he could only assume the clearing of the air was helpful. Given opportunities to repeat their public opinions--O’Neal’s charge that Bryant was hurting the offense, Bryant’s that O’Neal was too stubborn to change--both declined.
"[O’Neal] was not vocal with us,” Jackson said. “We gave him an opportunity to be vocal with us, as a team, and he’s not vocal with us as a team. So, that’s where it counts. If he wants to say that to you guys, I’m going to let that ride. If he wants to come in our room and say it to us as a group, then that’s different.
“I gave him ample opportunity to say that today and he didn’t say that. That’s the way I’m going to deal with the problem as a coach, give them an opportunity to talk about it themselves and we can work it out internally.”
Jackson and Kupchak have discussed the problems of O’Neal and Bryant, and Kupchak is content that they will play together without distraction.
“I think we both realize there’s a process that you really can’t hurry,” Kupchak said. “You’d like to move it along, but you can’t hurry it. The hope for everybody is that it’s short-lived. But, can it linger a month or two longer? Sure. But we had a four-day break and no games to evaluate performance. It’s a bigger issue now.
“When we start playing games, my guess is, you’ll see great effort. My guess also is, you’ll see our coach take a more aggressive position. The preference was, these guys have earned a chance to try to work it out amongst themselves. Let’s see if they can do it. Perhaps what you’ll see now is a more aggressive effort by our coach. He’s saying, ‘Maybe it is time for me to step in and run my team.’ ”
If this is to be temporarily divisive, Kupchak said, perhaps it is better now, with the playoffs three months off, than in April.
“It might be a good distraction,” he said. “Now everybody’s going to be looked at a lot closer. OK, if someone’s not playing well or someone’s missing people that are open or someone’s not rebounding or running, everybody’s going to look for it now. Everyone’s on notice. They’re accountable.”