How the Magic let the Lakers steal Shaquille O’Neal in 1996
How the Orlando Magic lost Shaquille O’Neal when they had a complete advantage to lure him back is still somewhat of a mystery, but the fact he left is still impacting the league today.
The Diesel ended up on the Los Angeles Lakers after the Magic essentially treated him like a mediocre talent, pointing out his poor free throw shooting while withholding available salary to sign their other budding star, Penny Hardaway.
The Magic low-balled O’Neal, offering a contract that was smaller compared to those signed by Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard at seven years, $105 million dollars with the Miami Heat and the Washington Bullets respectively.
They questioned his free throw shooting, but taking everything into account, that shouldn’t have mattered due to his absolute dominance in other areas of the game, such as rebounding, low-post scoring, and sheer talent. At this point, Shaq’s agents got fed up and looked at other suitors, such as the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, and interestingly, the Atlanta Hawks. Instead of bringing in the Big Fella, Atlanta singed Dikembe Mutombo to a much more affordable five-year, $50 million contract.
So now insert the Los Angeles Lakers. They needed to make some moves to create the cap space necessary just to sign Shaq. They traded away highly regarded big man Vlade Divac for a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, who was drafted 13th overall by Charlotte in the 1996 draft.
When pitching to O’Neal, the Lakers’ brass talked about the great Lakers big men of the past, such as George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Wilt Chamberlain, and how he could join that illustrious list. The Lakers subsequently traded George Lynch and Anthony Peeler to the Vancouver Grizzlies, creating even more cap space. As the Lakers were sweetening the pot, the Magic and their fans were becoming more stubborn.
Orlando didn’t want to pay one player 82% of the cap space they had. But back then, there wasn’t a penalty to go over the cap. For instance, the Chicago Bulls signed Michael Jordan to a one year, $30 million dollar contract.
Eventually, the Orlando Sentinel delivered the final blow that caused Shaq’s time in Orlando to cease. They put out a poll in the paper asking if Shaq was worth $115 million. With hindsight being 20/20, I’m sure the people of Orlando would have said yes if they could go back now. But alas they didn’t, with 90% of voters saying no, he was not worth that much money.
Feeling as if his team and fans had pushed him out, Shaq finally landed with the Lakers. A dynasty came into fruition, and three titles later, it was blatantly clear what a big mistake was made by the Magic.