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2 Down, 1 to Go?

Times Staff Writer

Shaquille O’Neal is gone, just as Phil Jackson is gone, and now it is Kobe Bryant’s team if he wants it.

The Lakers confirmed at noon Wednesday that O’Neal, an All-Star 11 times, an NBA champion three times, had been dealt to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a draft pick.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak described it as, “a disappointing day in a lot of ways in Los Angeles” but also said of the trade, “As bold as it was, [it] was necessary.”

While Kupchak talked more about restructuring the Lakers than rebuilding them, the size of his project remains undefined. A free agent after eight years at O’Neal’s side, Bryant could announce his destination as soon as today.

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He is believed to have narrowed his options to the Lakers and Clippers. His decision will change the course of both franchises, assuming he is eligible to play next season; Bryant will go on trial Aug. 27 for felony sexual assault.

As Bryant’s former team, the Lakers have offered him $136 million over seven seasons, the maximum allowed by the collective bargaining agreement. Dumping salaries still to dive further beneath the league’s salary cap, the Clippers have offered about $106 million over six.

While O’Neal’s former city held its breath, his new city, Miami, celebrated the arrival of one of the dominant figures in league history, still a powerful player at 32. While Laker owner Jerry Buss feared O’Neal’s decline and the salary he’d pay to watch it, Heat President Pat Riley accepted both and lifted a franchise that has listed toward mediocre, and worse, in recent seasons.

Unable to negotiate a contract extension, unhappy that Jackson, his coach of choice, was let go, and sensing the organization had chosen to surrender itself to Bryant, O’Neal left in a snit. He demanded a trade, gave the Lakers a list of about a half-dozen teams that appealed to him, and now moves on to Miami, after four years in Orlando and eight in Los Angeles.

Kupchak and Buss insisted this week that their decisions to change coaches and entertain offers for O’Neal were not based on Bryant’s wishes, claims O’Neal doubted.

“If you look at all the pieces of the puzzle that are thrown out there and you understand the game and understand the politics, you can put it all together and draw your own conclusions,” O’Neal told ESPN on Wednesday.

Asked specifically about Bryant, with whom he teamed for three consecutive championships and many more uncomfortable moments, O’Neal said, “I think he’s a great player. I think if he did the little things he’d be the greatest player to ever play the game.”

O’Neal said Bryant did not “make other players better.”

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Asked what he thought of Bryant as a person, he said, “It doesn’t matter what I think about him as a person.”

Bryant and O’Neal joined the Lakers in the summer of 1996. O’Neal, the league veteran, offered to serve as Bryant’s big-brother figure. Bryant, weeks out of high school, had none of it. A push-pull relationship was born. Jackson arrived three years later, they won games and then championships, sometimes in spite of themselves, occasionally falling into each others’ arms, and always with top-end garishness.

Now, O’Neal is gone, having returned to the Eastern Conference for three players -- none of them All-Stars -- and a draft pick. His new co-star is Dwyane Wade, a 6-foot-4 guard a year out of Marquette the Heat refused to include in the trade.

By Wednesday evening, the Heat’s official website was cluttered with O’Neal references and offers to buy season tickets.

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In a conference call with reporters, O’Neal said he approved of the trade “because Pat showed interest. And Dwyane. He’s going to be a great player.

“I just wanted to go to another contender. Miami is definitely a contender. With me now, it makes us even more of a contender.... I’m looking to do great things with the Heat.”

For the Lakers, the cornerstone of the trade is Odom, a 24-year-old forward who after four mercurial seasons with the Clippers signed a year ago with the Heat and had a breakout season. He averaged 17.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in 80 games, his most durable season.

When they decided not to match the Heat offer for Odom, the Clippers in their official statement referred to his issues of “character,” a reminder Odom had admitted to marijuana usage and had twice been suspended by the NBA because of it. If he tests positive with the Lakers, Odom would be suspended for five games and would have to return to the league’s anti-drug program.

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Kupchak said he believed those problems had been overcome, citing Odom’s inclusion on the U.S. Olympic team as evidence of an industry-wide assumption he had changed.

“We’ve noticed a great maturing in his play,” Kupchak said, “and his ability off the court to make good decisions.”

Grant, 32, is a hard-nosed, undersized interior player. He averaged 8.7 points and 6.9 rebounds, while often defending larger opponents, and on knees racked by tendinitis. Butler, 24, is an athletic small forward who averaged 9.2 points.

As configured, the Lakers lack a true center and have a glut of swingman types, though their starter at small forward for much of last season, Devean George, had surgery Tuesday and could sit out the early part of the season.

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Kupchak called the trade, “A bold move to get younger,” adding, “It was our best opportunity, given the set of circumstances we were faced with, to make a trade and bring talented young players to Los Angeles.”

It is assumed that Odom would start at power forward or small forward for the Lakers, perhaps depending on the opposition, and that Grant would play power forward or center, depending on the Lakers’ ability to acquire a true center, perhaps free agent Vlade Divac.

Having found a clause in Odom’s contract that would increase Odom’s salary by as much as $8 million over the next five seasons, the Lakers had the Heat include nearly $3 million in the trade. The draft choice will be a first-rounder in 2006 if it is not a lottery selection, which, with O’Neal in the Heat lineup, it probably won’t be. The protection decreases until there is none in 2010.

The Lakers hope to re-sign power forward Karl Malone, who is hearing from the San Antonio Spurs and Heat, among others, and point guard Derek Fisher, who is getting close to a decision after receiving attention from the Houston Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics. They are shopping Gary Payton, who chose to re-up at $5.4 million but is upset that O’Neal has been traded, and have made an offer to Slava Medvedenko.

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There is, however, only one free agent who can change the team dramatically, and that is Bryant.

“We have no idea that Kobe will come back,” Kupchak said. “We made the decisions independent of what Kobe might do.”

Then he called the Clippers “a real possibility” for Bryant.

After visiting with delegations from the Denver Nuggets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Lakers and Clippers in the past two weeks, and hoping the Lakers would come off their unwillingness to participate in a sign-and-trade, Bryant apparently will stay in Los Angeles. He will resume his time with the Lakers or instantly become the best player to ever be a Clipper.

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Bryant received the Lakers and Clippers on Monday night, was noncommittal, and two days later watched O’Neal leave.

“The meeting went well,” Kupchak said. “I don’t have a better feel what he may or may not do.... My guess is, at this hour, we’ve done everything we can do.

“Do we have a replacement player in place? No, we don’t. You can’t replace a Kobe Bryant.”

But, they can, apparently, replace a Shaquille O’Neal. Or try.

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“I want to be on a team,” O’Neal told ESPN. “I just want to be on a team.”

Riley, who won championships in Los Angeles and left as well, was only too happy to provide him with one.

“I think the thing that impressed me most is simply this,” Riley said. "[He said], ‘I want to be in Miami and I want to start again and I want to win a championship and I want to finish my career in South Florida.’ He was very emphatic about that and I didn’t have to drag that out of him.

“This was something that we could not pass up. The opportunity was too big. I think from that standpoint, you just have to look at it as to how it’s going to impact our franchise. I think from what it’s done already and the feeling I have about it, I’m excited as hell.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Now and Zen

Comparing last season’s Laker starters and the upcoming season’s potential lineup with the acquisition of Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler. Projected lineup is assuming Kobe Bryant re-signs with the team:

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*--* 2004-05 2003-04 LAKERS LAKERS Starters P PPG Reb FG% Starters P PPG REB FG% Gary G 14.6 4.2 471 Gary Payton G 14.6 4.2 471 Payton Kobe G 24.0 5.5 438 Kobe Bryant G 24.0 5.5 438 Bryant Caron F 9.2 4.8 380 Devean F 7.4 4.0 408 Butler George Lamar F 17.1 9.7 430 Karl Malone F 13.2 8.7 483 Odom Brian F/C 8.7 6.9 471 Shaquille C 21.5 11.5 584 Grant O’Neal Total 73.6 31.1 438 Total 80.7 33.9 479

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