Even five months later, even with Jerry Buss making himself available to discuss the reasons the Lakers became the laKers, it’s still hard to determine whether it was a personal matter or, as Michael Corleone would say, strictly business.
During a meeting with reporters Sunday afternoon Buss said that he didn’t bring Phil Jackson back after his five-year coaching contract expired in June because “it was a situation that had run its course,” and that he ordered the trade of Shaquille O’Neal because “it just seemed to me that -- as much as I hated to let him go -- at this point he was valuable enough that I could get my choice of some good players.”
It’s easy to understand the business decision to keep the younger Kobe Bryant over the older Shaquille O’Neal, who wanted a higher annual salary. But these giant egos have the ability to trump even the largest contract figures.
Buss says he believes the Lakers could have beaten the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals if Karl Malone had not injured his knee.
And if the Lakers had won the Finals? “I do think I could’ve talked to Shaq and Kobe and got them on the same page,” Buss said.
See, nothing wrong with the Lakers that a sound medial collateral ligament and a couple of receptive hearts couldn’t have solved.
Instead, well, you know the story. So how did Buss’ feelings emerge from this?
“If I took anything personally, I feel badly that Shaq has taken it personally,” Buss said. “Outside of that, I’m pretty happy with the way things happened.”
In part, he credits his own intervention. One reason Buss thinks Bryant stayed with the Lakers last summer instead of moving down the hall to join the Clippers was that he shared Buss’ desire to return the Lakers to an up-tempo style of play.
“And I think the other thing that he said was his basic decision was he wanted to win desperately, and he felt I was the person that shared those feelings,” Buss said.
Left unsaid by Buss was that Clipper owner Donald Sterling didn’t share those feelings. The two owners’ records speak for themselves.
Buss has been mostly beyond reproach. He missed the worst of the criticism that came his way after the O’Neal trade to Miami because he was in Italy.
When he returned, “My reaction was, let’s let history dictate,” Buss said. “Let’s see what happens three or four years from now, five years from now with the two teams involved.”
Buss knows if history repeats itself he’ll come out the victor. No one in professional sports can match his record in his first 25 years as owner of the Lakers, as evidenced by those eight Larry O’Brien trophies lining his office windowsill.
But history also shows that every empire falls. Every hot run comes to an end.
Buss, the poker player, might be playing the roulette wheel this time.
He’s hoping for another big free-agency payoff, similar to when he landed O’Neal in 1996.
It’s risky, however. Ask the Chicago Bulls what became of their grand free-agency dreams, which at various points included Kevin Garnett, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Buss cites the trap door that swung open beneath the Bulls after they finished their second three-peat run in 1998.
Jackson felt unwanted, Michael Jordan preferred retirement to playing for another coach and the dynasty died prematurely. To make it worse, of the five players they received for trading starters Scottie Pippen and Luc Longley and key reserve Steve Kerr, only one played a game for Chicago.
One thing that could help Buss would be a new collective bargaining agreement that reduced players’ incentive to stay with their home teams.
A free agent’s current team can sweeten the financial pot by offering larger annual raises and one additional year to the player. (That’s why the Lakers could present Bryant with a contract worth about $30 million more than the Clippers could last summer.) If the owners get their desire for shorter contract lengths -- say, four years -- in the next round of labor negotiations, the discrepancy would diminish.
It sounds as if Buss doesn’t want the NBA to fold its hand.
“The problem is, I think, every time a collective bargaining agreement came up, the players were able to win additional monies, additional favors, additional perks,” Buss said. “I think they got in the habit of feeling that was an endless barrel. But what they don’t understand at this point is it’s not. It’s over. And so, I think it’s going to be a very tough one.”
Buss said the players won even after they acceded to pro sports’ first salary cap, a luxury tax and maximum contract levels in previous agreements. If those are victories, I’d hate to see what happens when they lose.
And so you see Buss’ view doesn’t always follow the popular consensus.
He remains adamant that “Kobe at no time ever suggested he wouldn’t play if Shaq were there or if Phil were there.”
I believe Buss already had decided he wanted a different offensive system than Jackson’s, at a lower price. He indicated as much during a conversation in March.
And it’s possible Bryant himself never specifically told Buss he wanted O’Neal out. That doesn’t mean a representative couldn’t have delivered the message, or that Buss couldn’t take any hints (such as, say, the 2004 NBA Finals) that Bryant wanted the team to himself.
So now Bryant and O’Neal don’t have to share the court until Christmas, when the Heat comes to town.
“I think that’s going to be one of the most exciting things in sports,” Buss said. “That’s all of what sports is about, all those big-time conflicts, who wins, who loses.”
And personalities. Can’t have conflicts without different personalities.
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.