Jackson is definitely out, O’Neal says he wants out, and Bryant opts out
Shaquille O’Neal no longer wants to play for the Lakers, a decision he said he reached this week, when he came to believe the organization preferred Kobe Bryant to him and Phil Jackson.
Through his agent, Perry Rogers, O’Neal has demanded the Lakers trade him, a request team management sources say will be granted, if possible.
On the day Bryant opted out of his contract to become a free agent and Jackson and the Lakers decided he would not return as the team’s coach, O’Neal said he had lost faith in the franchise and its general manager, Mitch Kupchak.
The process of trading O’Neal, of undoing the summer of 1996, when O’Neal and Bryant were brought in by then-General Manager Jerry West and eventually won three NBA championships together, will start immediately, and Kupchak undoubtedly will be overrun with offers.
“The direction they’re going in, if they’re going to continue to go in the same direction, I don’t want to be a part of this,” O’Neal said. “This team, it ain’t about me. It ain’t about Phil. It’s supposed to be about team.”
Kupchak, who said Thursday he would consider trading O’Neal if that is what he wished, had no comment Friday.
O’Neal, one of the great players in NBA history and the Finals MVP in the Lakers’ last three championships, has two seasons remaining on his Laker contract, for $27.7 million next season and $30.6 million the season after. He can opt out of the final year of the contract and become an unrestricted free agent, but he’s in a bigger hurry to go.
“I wanted to let you guys know, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” he said. “When I was brought here by Jerry West, there was a team concept.... It was something I wanted to be a part of. Now no one cares. I told you I’m all about winning championships. Now the organization is different. It seems right now they’re trying to pit one person against another.
“Therefore, I don’t want to be a part of that.”
By the rules of the NBA collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers would have to take back about as much salary as they trade away, meaning a deal involving O’Neal would be complex and probably involve multiple players. A return to the Orlando Magic might be amenable to O’Neal. It probably would mean his friend and neighbor, Tracy McGrady, a member of the Magic who also has forced a trade, would have to swap places with him.
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and O’Neal have a good relationship, and Cuban has one of the league’s highest payrolls.
If the Lakers are unable to trade him, sources close to O’Neal said he would report to training camp, play one more season with the team and then opt out of the final year of his contract.
Horace Grant, a teammate of O’Neal’s in Orlando and twice in Los Angeles, said he did not believe O’Neal would change his mind.
“He’s serious,” Grant said. “He’s dead serious. I was with Shaq in Orlando. They wasted him. I see the same Shaq now. It’s unfair to Shaq.
“He helped bring three championships to this organization, when they hadn’t won any for a long time. I feel they should respect him a little bit more, money aside.”
Laker management suspects O’Neal is less upset about the direction of the team than the status of his contract extension, negotiations for which weakened months ago. The sides were $9 million apart over the two-year extension, and O’Neal soon would be eligible for a third year, which would put them further apart. Those negotiations are dead.
O’Neal, 32, insisted his disappointment lay in the sway of the organization. Bryant, as an unrestricted free agent, has been the team’s focus, the perception growing that it has been ordered by owner Jerry Buss at the expense of O’Neal and Jackson.
Kupchak said Thursday he would not undertake a sign-and-trade with Bryant under any circumstances. But, he said, if O’Neal were to demand a trade he would consider it, allowing, “That would not be a good day in this club’s history.”
By midseason, sources close to Buss were suggesting the owner would order Kupchak to trade O’Neal anyway, which they said had led to the slowing in negotiations, along with the suspension of contract extension negotiations with Jackson. At about the same time, Buss spent part of Super Bowl Sunday at Bryant’s home in Newport Beach.
While there is no debating O’Neal’s on-court value, his contract takes up nearly three-quarters of the team’s salary cap, which made Kupchak’s job of building around O’Neal difficult.
None of which has rested well with O’Neal, very proud and unhappy about a number of issues within the Lakers.
“So, I want you guys to write that if any GM out there wants a hard-working big man who wants to win championships, call Mitch Kupchak, because he’ll entertain offers,” O’Neal said. “My last six, seven years, I want to be on a great team.
“Right now, upstairs in the Laker offices, they’ve lost the team concept. They’re trying to pit people against each other.... So, obviously, we don’t have the same thought process anymore. That’s fine. I know it’s a business. I wanted to let you know I think the fans deserve better.”
O’Neal, who adored West, has had a dicey relationship with Kupchak over the last three years, since O’Neal’s last contract extension. He grew discontented when it became clear Jackson would be let go and friends Karl Malone and Gary Payton might not return, though now Malone and Payton must decide whether they’ll come back to a team O’Neal says he wants no part of.
Malone, who is considering retirement, opted not to extend his contract into next season. Payton must make the same decision by Wednesday.
“Everybody knows I love L.A.,” O’Neal said. “I love the police officers here. But everything has to be done right. That’s just Mitch using me as a scapegoat. Don’t believe it.
“He says he was waiting for me [to demand a trade]. But that’s how things go down when you get in over your head. I’ve always been a scapegoat here.”
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A House Divided
Key developments with the Lakers on Friday:
Jackson Leaves as Head Coach
* The coach of five years and three NBA titles meets with team owner Jerry Buss and announces that he will not return.
O’Neal Demands to Be Traded
* The Laker center, under contract for two more seasons for about $58 million, said, “I don’t want to be a part of this. This team, it ain’t about me. It ain’t about Phil. It’s supposed to be about team.” He could opt out after next season.
Bryant Becomes a Free Agent
* As expected, the Laker guard terminates his contract, allowing him to sign with any team, or to sign a longer and more lucrative contract with the Lakers. Now, he is unemployed and very much in demand.
Grant Set to Retire
* The Laker forward and longtime Jackson favorite, informed that Jackson is leaving the team, announces that he is retiring.
Fisher Ponders Free Agency
* The guard, whose miracle shot with .4 seconds left lifted the Lakers over San Antonio in the playoffs, was given until Wednesday to decide whether to opt out of his contract.