Revisiting the Lakers’ decision to trade Shaquille O’Neal

On a night when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are preparing to meet for the first time as division rivals, it’s hard to believe that it’s been just four years since one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous relationships (the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant) ended in divorce.

After eight years, more than 400 wins and 3 NBA championships together, the Shaq and Kobe feud finally reached its breaking point during the summer of 2004 and O’Neal was traded to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first round draft choice.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade, many observers (myself included) and experts (Bill Simmons’ take) crushed the Lakers for making this move, and they appeared to be justified.

2004-05, the first season after the trade:

  • The Lakers finished 34-48 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 1994 when O’Neal was still in Orlando and Bryant was still a sophomore in high school.
  • The Heat finished 59-23, good enough for first place in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost in seven games to the Detroit Pistons.

2005 off-season

  • The Lakers drafted center Andrew Bynum, a 17-year old, 7-foot project straight out of high school with the 10th overall pick, the team’s first lottery selection in more than a decade.
  • The Lakers drafted forward Ronny Turiaf from Gonzaga in the second round with the 37th overall pick.
  • The Lakers sent Caron Butler, who was acquired in the O’Neal deal, along with Chucky Atkins to Washington for Kwame Brown and Laron Profit.

2005-06, the second season after the trade:

  • The team improved to 45-37, which was good for a seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They then lost to Phoenix in seven games in the first round.
  • Miami went 52-30, a slight drop-off from the previous year, but they made everyone forget about their second place Eastern Conference regular season finish by avenging their loss against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and then coming back from an 0-2 series deficit in the NBA Finals to win four straight and the championship against the Dallas Mavericks.

In a “what have you done for me lately?” society, the verdict on the Lakers’ trade of O’Neal was in, and the Lakers were the losers. General Manager Mitch Kupchak was heavily criticized. O’Neal was hoisting another championship trophy, and he was not wearing a Lakers uniform. While most people even didn’t bother weighing in on this trade anymore after O’Neal helped Miami win a championship, the story didn’t end with Miami’s championship.

2006 off-season

  • The Lakers drafted point guard Jordan Farmar from UCLA with the pick acquired from Miami in the O’Neal trade.

2006-07, the third season after the trade:

  • The Lakers finished 42-40, which is once again good for seventh in the West. Again they faced Phoenix in the first round, and again they lost, this time in just five games. Three less regular season wins, two less postseason wins and another first round exit were not welcomed by Lakers fans. Neither was the news that Caron Butler was named to the All-Star team as a member of the Washington Wizards while Kwame Brown played just 41 games and averages 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds for the year.
  • Because of the Lakers inability to show progress, the regression of the Heat was overlooked. Miami won only two more games than the Lakers, going 44-38, before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Bulls. O’Neal played in only 40 games, averaging a career-low 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

2007 off-season

  • Kobe Bryant demands a trade, then rescinds his demands. This pattern seemingly repeats a dozen times and rumors of Bryant’s imminent departure continued to swirl even after the 2007-08 season began.
  • The Lakers signed Derek Fisher, one of the mainstays from their championship seasons earlier in the decade, and someone to bring leadership into the locker room.

2007-08, the fourth season after the trade:

  • The Lakers exceeded everyone’s expectations by starting the season strong. They defeated the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 13 to improve to 25-11, but center Andrew Bynum, who was having an all-star caliber year injured his knee in the win. The Lakers went just 3-5 in their first eight games after losing Bynum, but then they acquired 2006 All-Star Pau Gasol in a deal that sent Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the rights to Marc Gasol and two future first round picks to Memphis. Since they made the deal, the Lakers are 8-1, currently one game back of Phoenix and New Orleans atop the Western Conference standings.
  • Miami began the season 0-5, and things haven’t gotten much better. The Heat have lost 24 of their last 25 for a league worst record of 9-42. Aware that the playoffs were not in the cards this season and that their roster was not getting any younger, Miami traded O’Neal to Phoenix for four-time All-Star forward Shawn Marion and fifth-year guard Marcus Banks.

The fourth season is not yet complete. The Lakers are in the middle of a playoff push that currently has the top nine teams in the West separated by just five games. Adding to their difficulties, Bryant is attempting to play out the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his finger after doctors advised him to have surgery that would keep him out for six weeks. The Lakers are also waiting on the returns of injured players Bynum, which likely will not happen until late March, and Trevor Ariza, whom they acquired earlier this year by sending Brian Cook and Maurice Evans to Orlando.

Still, the Lakers are being picked by some to represent the West in the NBA Finals this season. Miami’s postseason highlight will be the NBA Draft Lottery. It’s taken four years—and patience is not something Lakers fans are known for—but the Lakers and Mitch Kupchak finally can make a legitimate argument that they got the better end of the O’Neal deal.

The trade resulted in just one season out of the playoffs. Most teams would die for that short of a “rebuilding period.” And for their troubles, the Lakers drafted Bynum, who appears to be on his way to becoming one of the best low-post threats in the league.

With the pick from Miami, they also drafted Farmar, who looks to be the Lakers’ point guard of the future.

Odom has led the team in rebounds each season since he’s been in L.A. while scoring between 13 and 15 points per game. And while the decision to deal Caron Butler may have been a mistake, the ability to deal Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol made amends.

Four years later, the trade looks something like this:

  • Los Angeles Lakers acquire: Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Lamar Odom, Pau GasolMiami Heat acquire: 2006 NBA Championship, Shawn Marrion, Marcus Banks

That championship is still hard to argue with. So if you go back to the summer of 2004 and you’re the Heat, I think you still make this deal. But I think the Lakers do it all again too. And when you factor in that only one player on the Lakers will be in his 30s during this year’s postseason—Derek Fisher is 33—this is a team that will contend for a title this year and for the next several years.

For more information, visit

Leave a Reply