All right, so where could the Big Fella go?
If we're going to play this out to its absurd conclusion, and -- my fingers simply cannot believe they're typing this -- the Lakers would indeed entertain offers for Shaquille O'Neal, then we have to determine a scenario that makes sense for both the team trading for Shaq and the Lakers. There are so many factors that are unique to the Diesel.
1. Shaq's highest-in-the-league salary. It's a robust $29.4 million for the 2004-05 season -- $32.4 million for 2005-06 -- making your run-of-the-mill, garden-variety trade impossible. Most teams would have to bundle so many players together just to get to Shaq's salary that they'd go into next season six or seven players short, as Orlando's general manager John Weisbrod told local reporters the other day. That doesn't mean they shouldn't think about it, only that it makes such a deal a real gamble.
2. The Lakers can't get snookered. It's crucial that Mitch Kupchak be able to hold his head up if a deal ultimately gets done. When the Lakers got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee, they sent the Bucks several good players that helped Milwaukee make the playoffs for years, like Junior Bridgeman and Brian Winters. Kupchak has to get real value for the MDE -- Most Dominant Ever. But therein lies a problem ...
3. You can't get equal value for Shaq. There is no one like him on the face of the earth. The things he brings a basketball team are unique to the DNA of Shaq's biological father and his mother, Lucille Harrison. So no matter who the Lakers acquire, they'll be fundamentally changed as a franchise. They'll still be good, but no longer intimidating; a contender, but no longer feared.
I know that by writing this, I'm no better than the radio call-in geeks whom I've come to despise. But if we're going to speculate -- repeat, S-P-E-C-U-L-A-T-E -- then we're going to do it right, and logically.
It would seem clear that L.A.'s first preference would be to get Shaq out of the Western Conference. I am reminded of the Moses Malone parallel, when Philly sent what it believed to be an over-the-hill Malone to a division rival, Washington, in the mid-80s for Jeff Ruland. A not-over-the-hill and now-motivated Mo proceeded to kick Philly's butt for two years. I don't think the Lakers want to face Shaq four times a year for the next five years, not to mention during the playoffs. So, if the desire is to get O'Neal at least two time zones away, who could fill the bill? We are writing off pipe dreams like the Knicks, Magic, Bulls and Raptors; the Celtics would, I'm sure, be willing to send Paul Pierce back home, but they're a little light in the cakes big-man wise.
Detroit certainly has enough quality players to make an offer, and Joe Dumars has never said he wouldn't like to have a guy like Shaq or Kobe, only that you still have to try to win in the absence of such superstars. But given the Pistons' team-oriented success against the Lakers in the Finals, it's hard to see them wanting to switch course and to try things the other way.
New Jersey? Conceivably. A deal involving Kenyon Martin (via sign and trade), Kerry Kittles ($10.2 million next season), Rodney Rogers ($3.35 million), the contract of Alonzo Mourning (still on the Nets' books at $5.4 million) and the rights to incoming Euro big Nenad Krstic would get you in the neighborhood of Shaq's contract. I would assume Jersey would want a young shooter like Kareem Rush to be part of the deal, too. Bonus for the Lakers: Rogers and Kittles are entering the final year of their respective deals, and Mourning would come off the ledger after next summer if he doesn't play again. The Lakers would get two talented young bigs in Martin and Krstic. The Nets would add Shaq -- who has lots of family in Newark -- along with a quality shooter in Rush, while retaining a good chunk of their core: Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, Lucious Harris and Aaron Williams. You'd think the Diesel would also sell some tickets, but I thought the high-flying Kidd Show would, too.
Indiana? Maybe. Jermaine O'Neal ($14.7 million next season) would obviously have to be involved when his base year expires, and I suspect the Lakers would ask for Al Harrington ($6.325 million) under similar circumstances. The Lakers might have to download Austin Croshere ($8.26 million) and Scot Pollard ($5.7 million); that would allow the Pacers to accept Derek Fisher's notable point guard skills and his $3 million salary, provided they could convince D-Fish not to opt out of his deal by the end of this week. The end result would be a Laker squad loaded up with frontcourt talent to play with Kobe Bryant, and a Pacers team that would still have Ron Artest, Jeff Foster, Jonathan Bender, Fred Jones and Jamaal Tinsley to go with Diesel and Fisher.
Cleveland? Well ... it's a longshot. But the Cavaliers have the requisite big man to send (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, conveniently entering the final year of his deal at $14.625 million). Tony Battie ($5.5 million), DeSagana Diop ($2.6 million), Kedrick Brown ($2.332 million) and Ira Newble ($2.7 million) get you near the promised land, and of those four, only Newble has more than two years left on his contract. Clearly, up-and-comer Carlos Boozer (a ridiculous value at only $695,000 on his rookie deal) would have to change uniforms, along with a few future first-round picks. Perhaps Cleveland could get Luke Walton's services in exchange. The Lakers would do this deal with an eye to the future, shedding most of these guys after this season, extending Boozer and seeing if they could entice a free agent or two to come west. As far as the Erie Boys go, Shaq and LeBron wouldn't be a bad one-two punch in the East, with Jeff McInnis and Dajuan Wagner in the chorus.
If L.A. couldn't dispatch O'Neal east and had to do business with a team out west, there are possibilities.
Dallas is a logical spot. Cubes would welcome Shaq with open wallet. The Mavericks clearly have the stuffed contracts to make the deal work numbers-wise, but it's hard to see Kupchak accepting a pedestrian package like Michael Finley ($14.6 million) and Antoine Walker (ditto). While Walker is up after this season, Finley eats up cap space like Pac Man, finally giving out at $18.5 million in 2007. Dirk Nowitzki gobbles up cash at a slightly reduced rate, starting at $12.5 million this coming season up to $16.3 million by 2007, but Cuban is loathe to give up the Diggler. I'd think you'd have to start with Steve Nash in a sign and trade, with Nasty, Nowitzki, Danny Fortson ($5.8 million) and precocious youngsters Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard part of the booty. Daniels would have to be signed and traded, too. The problem with this deal from L.A.'s standpoint is that it turns the Lakers, essentially, into the Mavericks -- a team with great perimeter talent with nothing in the middle. While the Mavs would suddenly have a 350-pound anchor to surround with Finley and Antawn Jamison.
Portland? Doable but doubtful. I can't see the Lakers being all that interested in a package involving Shareef Abdur-Rahim ($14.6 million), Dale Davis ($10 million) and Derek Anderson ($8.4 million) -- though with Abdur-Rahim and Davis each entering the last season on their deals, there would be some benefit for L.A. Nor can I see the Blazers being willing to put Zach Randolph front and center to get the Lakers' juices flowing.
Memphis certainly has enough players to make things interesting. A package of Pau Gasol ($4.3 million), Lorenzen Wright ($7.15 million), James Posey ($5.4 million), Jason Williams ($6.875 million) and Bo Outlaw ($6.585 million) would equal one Shaq, filling a lot of Lakers holes at small forward, power forward, point guard and bench. Memphis would still have Shane Battier, Stromile Swift and Bonzi Wells to team with Shaq, which would make a certain Logo ridiculously happy as the Grizzlies move into a new building with all kinds of luxury suites ready to move.
We leave you with this thought: Sacramento. At first glance it sounds absurd, given Shaq's various dismissals of the Kings over the years. Who can forget his declaration that if the Kings lost Chris Webber to free agency, that they'd go back to "expansionism?" Or that Sacramento was no longer the capital of California? Or that whole "Sacramento Queens" business?
I suspect the fans in Arco Arena would hold a grudge ... until Shaq dunked hard on someone's bean. And then, they'd forget.
Webber ($17.5 million next season) would certainly have to factor into a deal. To those who believe Webber to be damaged goods, I submit that in my experience covering hoops, it almost always takes a minimum of 18 months for a guy to truly recover from the kind of ACL injury Webber suffered a year ago. Which would make the real Webber return sometime around New Year's Day, 2005. If we assume that the old Webber is in there somewhere, a package of C-Webb, Bobby Jackson ($3.15 million), Brad Miller ($7.87 million) and Anthony Peeler would be somewhat enticing, giving the Lakers quantity and quality. The Kings' cupboard would still be filled with Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby and Doug Christie.
Now, do I believe in any of these scenarios? If you pushed me, I guess the Nets and Memphis make the most sense. If you have a dollar, though, you might still bet it on Shaq's temper to ultimately subside, and a new coach being able to assure the Big Man he still has a seat at the table. Money is still important and O'Neal has been adamant that he won't take a pay cut when his deal is up in two years. This is the Lakers' challenge. They have to find a way to buy some time while keeping Shaq engaged ... and not enraged.
It will be the most expensive re-financing in history.