In the 2004 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers — headlined by Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal — lost to the Detroit Pistons, who only had one All-Star on their roster in Ben Wallace.
Winning the championship for the fourth time in five years was always going to be difficult for the Lakers, but it seems the team’s management made things harder for the players than they needed to be going into that Finals series. During an appearance on Fox Sports’ “The Odd Couple” with Chris Broussard and Rob Parker, O’Neal said someone from the front office, which was led by Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak at the time, told him that the team would look drastically different the following year if they didn’t beat the Pistons:
Shaq: “The same thing that was going on in this documentary was going on with me. It was told to me that if we don’t win the series, I’m out of there.”
Broussard: “It was told to you before the series started?”
Shaq: “Yes, from somebody upstairs in the office, ‘Hey, if you don’t win this series, they’re looking to make changes’ … I knew once we lost that it was time for me to do something else.”
Whoever relayed that message to O’Neal was right, because a few months later, the Lakers fired Phil Jackson, and traded O’Neal, Payton and Rick Fox. It was clear that front office didn’t believe in their core anymore, and if they did, they didn’t believe that their talent was worth putting up with Bryant and O’Neal’s drama for another season.
There is a lot of that blame that goes back and forth between Bryant and O’Neal, but this was probably an unnecessary form of motivation from the front office in hindsight.