Heat deals for O'Neal, ending his L.A. story

`We got the best player in the world,' Riley says of landing Lakers center

July 15, 2004|By Ira Winderman | Ira Winderman,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - To appreciate what the Miami Heat has gained is to appreciate how hard the Los Angeles Lakers took their loss.

"It's certainly a disappointing day in a lot of ways in Los Angeles," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said yesterday. "There's no doubt it's a bold move."

An hour later, 3,000 miles away, Heat president Pat Riley spoke of how bold.

"We feel like we got the best player in the world," he said, after speculation and rumor turned to the reality that 11-time NBA All-Star Shaquille O'Neal is the Heat's starting center. "We now have the most dominant player in the world."

A trade that appeared preposterous, the stuff of sports-talk radio and wishful thinking, instantly altered the basketball landscape when the NBA signed off on the transaction that sent center Brian Grant, forwards Caron Butler and Lamar Odom, and a first-round draft choice to the Lakers.

"This was something we could not pass up," Riley said. "The opportunity was too big. I'm excited as hell."

Even more significantly, so is O'Neal, whose bitter differences with Lakers management and inability to get along with guard Kobe Bryant soured the end of an eight-year Los Angeles tenure that produced three championships and another visit to the NBA Finals last month.

"We're just going to grow together," the 7-foot-1, 360-pound center said by cell phone. "I'm looking to do great things. I've always been on a mission."

Due $27.7 million this season, the 32-year-old holds an opt-out clause that could make him a free agent next summer. But he not only plans to work out an extension with the Heat, he plans to play for "five or six" more seasons.

While some have pointed to declining productivity and increased weight, all Riley saw when he closed the deal last week in Orlando was a fast track to a championship that has eluded him in his nine-year stewardship of the franchise.

"I believe that Shaquille has a long time left in the NBA at very productive numbers," he said. "From that standpoint, I wouldn't have made this deal if we didn't think he would be here for a number of years."

In giving up its starting frontcourt, the Heat altered a youthful approach that had made it one of the league's most entertaining teams last season.

"We're not stopping the building process. We just added to the building process the most dominant player in the league," Riley said.

The Heat protected its future in the transaction. The earliest the first-round pick can go to the Lakers is in 2006, and that only is if it is not among the 14 lottery selections. Otherwise, it would go to Los Angeles in 2007 if not among the first 10, in 2008 if not among the first six, in 2009 if not among the first three, or in 2010 unconditionally.

For as much as the trade became the buzz of the NBA over the past week, Riley said initial discussions began as early as the June 24 NBA draft.

"We weren't the only one that was on the phone the first day," Riley said.

O'Neal limited Los Angeles' options, threatening to opt out of his contract unless traded to a team on a list he had forwarded to Lakers management.

"We felt it was important for Shaquille, for what he'd done for the franchise, to pursue opportunities with those teams," Kupchak said. "It's not to say we did not look at other teams. But we did look at the teams that he presented to us. We were able to get back some young and more versatile and different players - nobody nearly as dominant."

Said Riley: "We just raised the ante here ... with the very best of the best at that position."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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