The relationship between Shaquille O'Neal and the late Kobe Bryant, both on and off the court, is one of the more captivating storylines in NBA history. The duo won three consecutive titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, but their partnership came to an end shortly after an NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, when O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and two draft picks.
Ask any random NBA fan, and they'll tell you the reasoning behind the O'Neal trade was simple: He and Bryant could no longer coexist due to their on- and off-court disagreements, and it became a "him or me" situation, with the Lakers eventually choosing the younger Bryant over O'Neal.
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Lakers owner and president Jeanie Buss, whose father, Jerry, was in charge of the team of the time of the O'Neal trade, tells a different story. Jeanie Buss joined hosts Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the latest episode of the "All The Smoke" podcast, and said that the decision to trade O'Neal did not come from Bryant, but instead was strictly financial.
"[O'Neal] wanted an amount of money that was legal under the CBA but it wasn't what my dad wanted to pay him. And so it came to the point where the decision was made to trade Shaq," Buss said. "A lot of people want to put that blame on Kobe. It wasn't. It was purely a money situation."
At the time of O'Neal's trade demand in 2004, the L.A. Times reported that he and the Lakers were $9 million apart on trade extension negotiations, which management cited as the reason for Shaq wanting to leave. O'Neal still had two seasons remaining on his contract, with a player option for the final year, but was apparently put off by the Lakers' offer.
O'Neal's comments at the time suggest that Bryant, at least indirectly, had something to do with the trade. It's not hard to read the subtext indicating that Shaq felt the franchise was dedicated to Bryant over him.
"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 in June of 2004. "This team, it ain't about me. It ain't about Phil [Jackson]. It's supposed to be about team."
In Jeff Pearlman's book, Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, former Lakers guard Kareem Rush recalls Bryant saying, "I ain't playing with that m-----f----- again" about Shaq following their loss in the 2004 Finals. Also in the book is a scene where Bryant is asked by Jackson whether his partnership with O'Neal could continue, and Kobe said he was "tired of being a sidekick."
Pearlman later quotes O'Neal as saying that Kobe "needed to be the hero" and that "Kobe ignored me" in the Finals loss.
In a televised special in 2018, O'Neal apologized to Bryant for being "an a--hole," and said they were the "most dominant 1-2 punch, little-big, ever created in the game."
O'Neal went on to win a championship with the Heat alongside Dwyane Wade, while Bryant won two more titles with the Lakers following Shaq's departure. Still, contemplating how many additional titles the Kobe-Shaq Lakers could have won had things not gone south has become one of the juiciest "what ifs" in basketball history.