Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Shaquille to Miami 

Should be official today in just a few moments. The Lakers have agreed in principle to the most dominant player in the league's demands and will ship him to Miami in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a future 1st round pick. It's a colossal move and undoubtedly the biggest trade of the sports year (hell, even of the last three or four years). Yes, bigger than baseball's Alex Rodriguez/Alfonso Soriano swap. That trade, while big, really hasn't changed the landscape of baseball at all (the Yankees are still the best). This Shaq trade, however, promises to turn the entire league on it's ear.

Shaq's demands to leave aside, it now seems rather obvious that the Lakers could not possibly return the same team from last season and expect to win a title. Not after the way they were thrashed by Detroit in the finals. So perhaps it took an angry Shaq for them to realize that they have to break down what they've got if they are ever going to get better. It's a reality in sports. Everything is cyclical and every dominant franchise needs to rebuild sooner or later. LA will still be a playoff team, but now they'll look like more of an also-ran rather than a threat.

It is expected that when Shaq inevitably is traded, the Lakers will have no problem signing Kobe Bryant (once he clears his legal troubles -- which he certainly will). But even with Kobe and the talent en route from Miami, the loss of O'Neal automatically drops LA from the most powerful team in the Western Conference to probably the 6th most potent. He's that valuable and I don't think there's any question that his worth and importance as a big man will be missed by the Lakers in the immediate future. They're be losing their top rebounder, shot blocker, and throughout his tenure in Los Angeles, their top scorer. Shaq heading to the Eastern Conference vaults the following teams past LA in terms of potency and legitimacy as contenders: San Antonio, Minnesota, Sacramento, Houston, and Dallas. Those five at the very least stand to benefit the most out of this deal.

The loss of Shaq also means that Gary Payton is demanding his way out of town... even after just signing an extension. But if these past playoffs are any indication, he's all washed up anyway.

The trade is being held up at the moment as LA reviews the contract of Lamar Odom, having found that there is a stipulation in there stating that his cost increases if he's traded from Miami. However, it won't derail the trade, so when it happens and if Payton gets dumped, the Lakers lineup will look as such:

C Brian Grant
PF Karl Malone*
SF Lamar Odom
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant

*Assuming he doesn't retire, which is a strong possibility.

Key Reserves:
Caron Butler
Slava Medvedenko
Devean George
Kareem Rush
Luke Walton
Brian Cook

So while the Lakers add some depth and get younger with this trade, they will suffer from not having a true center on the roster. Brian Grant, as much as I love the way he hustles, is an aging, beat up power forward. Odom is coming off a career season in Miami and is in the prime of his career, but how he and Kobe interact is a giant question mark. Obviously, they'll defer to Kobe, but Odom is a player who thrives with the ball. Butler is a rising star entering his 3rd season in the league. He's an exciting talent who'll probably crack the starting lineup midway through the year. The trade also frees up a little cash for LA and that first round pick is icing on the cake. However, the worth of that pick may not be very high as Miami is now capable of winning the Eastern Conference.

When they break up their promising nucleus of young talent, Miami will evolve into a contender with Shaquille O'Neal, but only for the short term (2-3 seasons). Shaq is starting to get up in age -- the prime reason why LA chose Kobe over him -- and 2-3 seasons will be all it takes before he declines from dominant to good. However, moving to the undersized Eastern Conference where there is a complete lack of centers and big men lengthens O'Neal's shelf-life by at least a couple years.

So in the short term, the Miami Heat (who would've ever thought??) get the better end of the deal. Long term? That all depends on whether or not LA can build on the new talent they've acquired and if that talent gels with Kobe. Even with all the Kobe comparison to Jordan, he's a loooooong way from taking this team to a championship by himself. The Lakers now (or soon, rather) need the most desirable commodity for any NBA team if they're going to be a factor again: a big man.

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