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Lakers Agree to Deal O’Neal to Miami Heat

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers have agreed in principle to trade Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat, apparently ending a triumphant and tumultuous eight-year run in which the team won three NBA championships, team and league sources said Saturday.

In exchange for O’Neal, one of the greatest players of his era, the Lakers will receive forwards Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, center Brian Grant and a future first-round draft pick, the sources said. None of the players coming from Miami has been an All-Star. The deal cannot become official until late Tuesday night, when the league’s two-week moratorium on trades and signings is lifted.

O’Neal arrived as a free agent from the Orlando Magic in 1996, heralding the beginning of what many envisioned as a long-running championship dynasty, one pairing the game’s most imposing big man with another new arrival, teenage rookie guard Kobe Bryant. Their dominance took hold in the 1999-2000 season with the arrival of Coach Phil Jackson and the first of three consecutive titles, even as the two superstars occasionally feuded. But it all fell apart last season amid open rancor between the two and felony rape charges against Bryant.

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The Lakers didn’t comment on the deal.

The agreement to trade O’Neal was reached on the day the Lakers introduced Rudy Tomjanovich to replace Jackson, who departed three weeks ago after Laker owner Jerry Buss declined to offer him a new contract. The trade -- as with Jackson’s exit -- is widely seen as a move to placate Bryant, who is a free agent after opting out of the final year of his contract, though whether he will rejoin the Lakers remains uncertain.

O’Neal had intimated weeks ago that Buss had chosen Bryant over the good of the team, hoping to lure him away from other free-agent offers. It was a blow to O’Neal, who had carried the franchise in Bryant’s early years and then feuded with him thereafter, usually over control of the team’s offense and locker room.

If the trade holds, the Lakers could start the 6-foot-9 Grant at center, Odom at power forward, Butler at small forward and Gary Payton at point guard, with Bryant -- mulling over multiyear deals from the Lakers and Clippers, among others -- perhaps at shooting guard. Karl Malone and Derek Fisher remain free agents with some interest in returning to the Lakers.

“If it really is a done deal, it’s something that didn’t have to happen,” Fisher said at a summer league game in Long Beach. “The way everything went down, it seemed inevitable.

“I don’t think that when the season was over Shaq was really that adamant about leaving. He obviously was disappointed, like all of us were. But that changed when the line was clearly drawn that it wasn’t his team and it was all about Kobe and that he’ll have to take a back seat. I think at that point, Shaq washed his hands of the Lakers.

“It’s unfortunate because we’ve had something very special.”

Without the 7-foot-1 O’Neal for the first time since 1996, the Lakers would have a much smaller lineup. That’s what is left for Tomjanovich, who signed his contract Saturday and later, amid some of the greatest tumult in franchise history, spoke at a news conference.

O’Neal met Saturday with Heat President Pat Riley and General Manager Randy Pfund in Orlando, Fla., where O’Neal has a home and the Heat played a summer league game.

The center “got comfortable with their culture and likes their character,” said Perry Rogers, O’Neal’s agent. “He hopes this is the last place he ever plays.”

Rogers added that O’Neal had not agreed to a contract extension, though such an agreement is expected, for as much as $90 million over three seasons. O’Neal can opt out of his contract after next season, though he’d be leaving more than $30 million behind.

Asked about the deal while leaving a gym in Orlando, O’Neal said, “I can’t talk about that today.”

Those close to Buss say he had become disenchanted with O’Neal, who sat out 15 games in each of the last three seasons, pouted about his contract and refused to stay in shape. At the end of the 2002-03 season, O’Neal weighed 358 pounds and had about 20% body fat. After what he said was a rigorous summer of training, O’Neal arrived at the team’s camp in October only 11 pounds lighter and with his body fat reduced only slightly.

In what appears to have been his final year as a Laker, O’Neal averaged 21.5 points -- a career low -- and 11.5 rebounds in the regular season, then was unable to string together high-energy games in the postseason. The Lakers lost the Finals in five games to the Detroit Pistons.

With their apparent new lineup, the Lakers of 2004-05 would closely resemble the Heat of last season, with the upgrade of Bryant over Eddie Jones. Miami won 42 games in the Eastern Conference last season, then lost to the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals.

Riley, who came to Los Angeles three weeks ago to interview for Jackson’s job, now has O’Neal, the one-time league most valuable player, the three-time MVP in the NBA Finals and, at 32, still one of the game’s most powerful players. It was during his meeting in L.A. that Riley became convinced Buss was serious about trading O’Neal and started matching players, league sources suggested.

Riley refused to part with guard Dwyane Wade, who as a rookie led the Heat in scoring during the postseason. Bryant is said to have urged the Lakers to acquire Wade, and it is unclear what impact their apparent failure to do so will have on his choice of where to sign.

Instead, the Lakers are to get Odom, a former Clipper who averaged 16.8 points and 8.3 rebounds; Grant, a strong but short and aging inside player; and Butler, a developing forward whose numbers fell off after a strong rookie season.

In his four years as a Clipper, Odom fought injuries and a marijuana habit before signing as an unrestricted free agent last season with the Heat. On Odom’s way out of town, the Clippers issued a press release that mentioned, among other things, Odom’s “character issues.” He returns as the cornerstone in the O’Neal trade and, this summer, an Olympian.

Under the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement, the Lakers had to take on contracts worth within 15% of O’Neal’s $27.7-million salary. Odom is due to make $9 million next season, Grant $13.2 million and Butler $1.9 million. Odom’s contract runs through the 2007-08 season, Grant’s through 2005-06. If Bryant re-signs, and Odom and Grant are on the roster, then the Lakers will have little chance of obtaining a high-level free agent in the near future.

What then-General Manager Jerry West built eight years ago when he signed O’Neal with a $120-million contract and traded for the rights to Bryant appears to have run its course. O’Neal is on the verge of returning to Florida and Bryant, according to Laker sources, has given the Lakers no indication that trading O’Neal would guarantee his return. Bryant will go on trial on Aug. 27 for felony sexual assault in Eagle, Colo. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Given the duty of trading O’Neal, Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Saturday only that the issues with O’Neal had grown “very complex.” He said he had discussed no trades that were contingent on him signing Bryant, that he simply was dealing with a confluence of events -- contracts expired, needs changed, players aged -- as best he could.

Along with Bryant, O’Neal had become the face of the Lakers and, in large part, the face of the league. Though Bryant had surpassed him in scoring and, despite the felony charge against him, fan popularity, O’Neal is the more affable of the two, able to warm a room with his personality when he chooses.

While he at times seemed unchallenged during the regular season, O’Neal made his reputation in the playoffs, where he averaged 28.1 points and 12.9 rebounds before falling off somewhat this postseason.

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Staff writer Lonnie White contributed to this report.


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