On July 18, 1996, the NBA changed its face. Indeed, that day, free agent Shaquille O’Neal decided to leave the palm trees of Orlando to join those of Los Angeles. After four seasons in the Magic jersey, Shaq signed a seven-year, $ 120 million contract with the Lakers. Back on this earthquake which upset the league.
Remember LeBron James’ decision to ditch Cleveland to bring his talents to South Beach in 2010? Or even that of Kevin Durant a year ago, when he chose to change his comfort zone by signing at Golden State after nine seasons for Oklahoma City? In 1996, the NBA experienced a similar earthquake with 24-year-old pivot Shaquille O’Neal, considered at the time as the present and future of the league. First Draft Pick (1992), Rookie of the Year (1993), All-Star every season (1993-1996), league top scorer (1995) and three-time All-NBA Team member (1994) , 1995 and 1996), Shaq had quickly succeeded in triggering steamroller mode in the NBA and placing the very young Orlando franchise on the US basketball map. The Magic, created in 1989, had become one of the heavyweights of the Eastern Conference amid the nineties, where he notably participated in an NBA Final against the Houston Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon (1995). In short, the future looked bright in Orlando, until July 18, 1996.
This date officially marks the end of the O’Neal era at the Magic, and the start of a legendary chapter with the Lakers. Present in Atlanta with the third version of the Dream Team for the 1996 Olympic Games, Shaq justified his choice in a press conference alongside Los Angeles general manager Jerry West. Silver ? Tensions with his talented teammate Penny Hardaway? Bad relations with coach Brian Hill and the Orlando media? None of that according to O’Neal.
“Change is a good thing. I’m a child of the military, I’m used to moving every three, four years. The Lakers have a great tradition, especially among interiors. […] They have a young team, the western style of play is more open, so I hope I can show my talents a little more. […] Money was not the main factor in my decision. I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money. I just want to play, have fun, drink Pepsi and wear Reebok. “
In an article on the CBS Sports website last year, Joel Corry describes the behind-the-scenes look behind the move. 21 years ago, Corry was the consultant of Leonard Armato, Shaquille O’Neal’s agent. He therefore had access to all the negotiations. According to him, the Magic scuttled itself when he had all the cards in hand to extend his weapon of mass destruction. First, financially, the Florida franchise had the advantage because it held the Bird rights of the pivot. In addition, there was no maximum salary at the time, nor luxury tax. But Orlando did not take advantage of it. On the contrary, Corry indicates that the Magic initially put on the table an offer well below O’Neal’s expectations, to the tune of $ 13.5 million per season while Shaq expected a salary of around 20 million. The reason ? The Florida franchise reportedly wanted to keep some headroom in order to extend Penny Hardaway later. Then, Orlando would have put forward the slightest weaknesses of his player (such as defense and rebound) to gain a little flexibility in the negotiations. Not necessarily a good idea with regard to the pivot. And it is from there that a departure would have been considered in the camp of Shaquille O’Neal.
Meanwhile, on the Los Angeles side, Jerry West did what was necessary to free up payroll and thus place himself on the file. It is for this reason in particular that “The Logo” transferred in 1996 the interior of the Lakers Vlade Divac against the rookie Kobe Bryant. This trade is still today one of the greatest strokes of genius in history, because it not only allowed the Californian franchise to acquire Kobe but also because it gave the possibility to this one of ‘Give Shaq a better deal. Faced with this growing threat, the Magic reacted by increasing their offer for O’Neal through a seven-year, $ 109 million contract, but the Lakers offered 120 million over the same term. As a reminder, at that time, Orlando could not line up in order to keep his player, because the notion of restrictive free agent did not exist between 1995 and 1998. The rest, we know it. Shaquille O’Neal signing in Los Angeles marks turning point in NBA history. The Lakers quickly become one of the best teams in the league and turn into a real war machine when Phil Jackson arrives and Kobe Bryant explodes. During the first half of the 2000s, Los Angeles picked up three straight titles and O’Neal each time won the MVP trophy of the Finals. On the Orlando side, Shaq’s departure was logically synonymous with decline. Indeed, without its dominant big man, the Magic became an average Eastern Conference team between 1996 and 2003, a period that corresponds to the prime d’O’Neal.
While playing with fire, the Florida franchise burned down and saw Shaquille O’Neal fly to Los Angeles. If the latter declared in 2015 that he regretted this decision, it is especially the Magic which must now bite the fingers compared to the way in which the negotiations took place at the time. Well yes, with Shaq, maybe Orlando would have a title right now …