It’s one of the most gripping parts of the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and the Bulls: GM Jerry Krause was dumping Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen no matter if the Bulls won the 1997-98 title or not. His ego convinced him he could quickly build another champion. History taught a different lesson.
Shaquille O’Neal said a Lakers executive told him something similar back in 2004.
Shaq was on Fox Sports’ “The Odd Couple with Chris Broussard & Rob Parker” and had this exchange.
Shaq: “The same thing that was going on in this documentary was going on with me. It was told to me that if we don’t win the series [2004 NBA Finals vs. Detroit Pistons] I’m out of there.”
Broussard: “It was told to you before the series started?”
Shaq: “Yes, from somebody upstairs in the office, ‘Hey, if you don’t win this series, they’re looking to make changes’… I knew once we lost that it was time for me to do something else.”
The circumstances were different with the breakup of the Lakers, and some of that was Shaq’s own doing.
Kobe Bryant was a free agent in 2004 and he was looking at other teams, including at the cross-town Clippers (then still owned by Donald Sterling, which was an issue). The Kobe/Shaq relationship had become toxic and the only chance the Lakers had of bringing back Kobe was to trade Shaq. At that point in time, Shaq may have been the better player, he was more popular than Kobe with a healthy segment of the fan base, but in basketball terms there was no decision to be made: pick a driven 25-year-old Kobe just entering his prime, or 31-year-old Shaq, who was already having some injury issues.
In July after that season, Shaq was traded to Miami for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, and a 2006 first-round pick that became Jordan Farmar. Shaq went on to win a ring with Dwyane Wade two years later. Kobe’s legend only grew with an MVP and, eventually, with Pau Gasol, he won a couple more rings.
If the Lakers had won the 2004 title — that team really missed Karl Malone in the Finals, the injured forward was the kind of glue and third option they needed — would everyone have stuck together for another season? Maybe. Maybe not. Kobe was young and impulsive and he wanted out of Shaq’s shadow. Maybe nothing changed.
Did the Laker front office see the writing on the wall? It would have been hard to miss. And it’s entirely possible one of them told Shaq that winning a title was the only way this team was sticking together.