Thursday, July 15, 2004

O'Neal turns Miami into a contender

Gives team needed star presence

By Steven Wine
The Associated Press

MIAMI - The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat finalized a trade Wednesday sending Shaquille O'Neal to Miami, with Los Angeles getting Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick in return.

The deal, ending O'Neal's eight-year tenure in Los Angeles, had been on the verge of completion since Saturday, when he met in Orlando with Heat president Pat Riley and agreed to the trade. NBA attorneys approved it hours after the league's two-week moratorium on player movement ended.

"Today, the Miami Heat took a giant step forward in our continued pursuit of an NBA championship," Riley said in a statement. "We feel that we have traded for the best player in the NBA."

The 7-foot-1, 340-pound O'Neal transforms into a title threat a franchise that has reached the conference finals only once in its 16-year history. The Heat have won one playoff series in the past four years and went 42-40 last season.

"I never imagined that we would acquire Shaquille O'Neal," guard Eddie Jones said. "It's once-in-a-lifetime trying to get a player like this guy. It's an unbelievable, unbelievable move."

At 32, O'Neal is coming off a season when he averaged a career-low 21.5 points, and he has missed 15 games each of the past three seasons with foot and leg injuries. But he's an 11-time All-Star with career averages of 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, and he's moving to the Eastern Conference, where there's a dearth of dominating centers.

"I've always said that wherever he is, that's where the balance of power is," Indiana Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said.

The trade marks a return to Florida for O'Neal, who began his NBA career in 1992 with Orlando and still has a home there. He led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995, then signed with the Lakers as a free agent in 1996 and helped them win three NBA titles.

Days after the Lakers lost this year's championship series to Detroit, O'Neal, weary of feuding with teammate Kobe Bryant and feeling disrespected by owner Jerry Buss, demanded to be traded. He's under contract for $27.7 million this coming season and $30.6 million for 2005-06.

The Lakers' most significant acquisition is the versatile Odom, who is coming off the best season in his five-year NBA career. He and Butler were considered cornerstones in the Heat's recent rebuilding effort, while Grant is a 10-year veteran.

Riley said he was saddened to part with all three players.

"It disheartens me to see them leave," Riley said. "However, you don't get many chances to acquire the best player in the league, and this was a trade I felt we had to make."

With the departure of three starters, Riley will build his team around O'Neal, Olympian Dwyane Wade and Jones, Miami's leading scorer each of the last four seasons.

The Heat will shop for help at both forward positions and backup point guard, and free agents probably will consider Miami a more appealing option with the addition of O'Neal.

"Everybody wants to be here now," said Jones, who played with O'Neal in Los Angeles from 1996 to 1998.

Each player involved in the trade must pass a physical before joining his new team. O'Neal's first appearance in South Florida is expected to be Tuesday, the Heat said.

He instantly becomes Miami's most high-profile athlete, and Heat ticket sales have been brisk this week. O'Neal is moving from one city enthralled by celebrities to another, but there are a lot more of them in Los Angeles than in Miami, so O'Neal is likely to become the biggest thing on South Beach.

"There's a lot of excitement going around in the city," Heat guard Rasual Butler said. "They call Shaquille O'Neal 'Big Daddy' for a reason - because everything he does is big. And it's big news that he's coming here."

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