Thursday, July 15, 2004

Never again will Shaquille O’Neal wear gold and purple. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, consider the idea of Kobe Bryant clad in red.

“We have no idea whether Kobe will come back,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged yesterday after completing the trade that sent O’Neal to Miami. “We’re hopeful that he’ll re-sign, but we don’t even know that.”

Wasn’t it just recently that the Lakers were being called — rightly or wrongly — a dynasty?

A better term these days might be “train wreck.”

Another chapter in the disassembly of that so-called dynasty was completed yesterday, the NBA office giving final approval to the deal sending O’Neal to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future No.1 draft pick.

“The Eastern Conference, outside of Jermaine O’Neal, it’s not going to be that difficult to me. So I look forward to it,” Shaq said.

The plot line and the date of the next chapter of “As the Lakers Unfurl” will become known soon, though no one — except perhaps the publicly silent Bryant — is certain exactly when.

By trading Melvin Ely and Eddie House to Charlotte for two second-round draft picks, the Clippers have cleared enough salary cap space to offer Bryant a maximum-salary contract of about $100 million over six years.

The Lakers can offer Bryant a seventh season in a package worth an additional $30 million, but whatever contract Bryant signs presumably will have an opt-out clause after the fifth season — making the financial value of the two offers much more comparable.

“My guess at this hour is we’ve done everything we can do,” said Kupchak, who reiterated what he said earlier this summer — that the Lakers will not consider any sign-and-trade deals for Bryant.

“I’m hopeful that he’ll make a decision sooner rather than later,” Kupchak said. “I don’t know if it will be tomorrow. I don’t know if it will be Friday. I don’t know if it will be next week. If he chooses to take time, he’ll take time.”

ESPN reported last night the decision is expected to be announced today.

Elsewhere around the league, Rasheed Wallace continued to negotiate with the NBA champion Detroit Pistons, and Erick Dampier was stalling on accepting lucrative offers from Atlanta and Denver in the hope the New York Knicks would be able to acquire him from Golden State.

One factor working in the Knicks’ favor was their willingness to take on Evan Eschmeyer’s bloated contract, and there were several multi-team trade possibilities being discussed, an NBA source told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

A number of previously agreed upon free agent deals were signed, the first day in two weeks that trades could be made and free agents could sign with new teams.

The only signings not previously reported were minor ones — center Jason Collier joining the Atlanta Hawks, and forward Tamar Slay and guard Jason Hart joining the Bobcats.

The Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets continued to discuss trade scenarios involving forward Kenyon Martin, while Vlade Divac pondered returning to one of his former teams, the Lakers, rather than taking less money from his current team, the Sacramento Kings.

Also, incoming Raptors general manager Rob Babcock reiterated his desire not to trade Vince Carter, but he was vague when asked whether Carter’s agent, Mark Steinberg, had requested a trade.

“My preference is to have Vince here, but that’s up to Vince more than it is up to us,” Babcock said.

But by far the biggest news of the day was the blockbuster sending O’Neal to South Florida. It is one of the few times in league history that a dominant center near the peak of his career has been dealt.

“We feel that we have traded for the best player in the NBA,” Heat president Pat Riley said, adding that ticket sales for the upcoming season have been brisk. “Over at the business office of the AmericanAirlines Arena, it’s like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right now. It’s absolutely a frenzy.”

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

The Heat now will shop for help at both forward positions and backup point guard, and free agents likely 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.

Whether Bryant wants to remain with the Lakers remained the league’s biggest mystery.

Kupchak and new Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich met with Bryant on Monday night, as did Clippers officials.

“The meeting went well. I don’t have a better feel what he may or may not do,” Kupchak said. “Do we have a replacement player in place? No, we don’t. You can’t replace a Kobe Bryant.”

Bryant, who turns 26 next month, joined the Lakers in 1996 — the same year O’Neal was signed as a free agent. He goes on trial later this summer in Colorado for felony sexual assault, and a conviction in the courtroom would render moot any decision he makes about where to spend the next five-plus years.

The pair feuded at times, but as one of the top 1-2 punches in NBA history they led the Lakers to three championships (2000-2002) and a berth in the finals this year, when they lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games.

Now, one superstar is gone, and the other may be out the door soon.

“Kobe’s a free agent,” Kupchak said. “There exists the possibility we’ll get nothing [if he leaves].”

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