The Los Angeles Lakers teams led by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson were some of the most iconic and successful in the history of the storied franchise. Put together by then-general manager Jerry West, that trio would ultimately lead the Lakers to three championships in four NBA Finals appearances.
But nearly as legendary as the talent of those teams was the dysfunction that seemed to follow them everywhere. While Jackson was always able to keep Bryant and O’Neal functioning together on the court, the two were constantly sniping at each other through the media for nearly the entirety of their time together.
Eventually that conflict forced the Lakers to trade O’Neal in order to keep Bryant from leaving in free agency while Jackson retired. But West said on the “Not Just Sports with Suzy Schuster and Rich Eisen” podcast that he wished things hadn’t turned out that way.
When asked about the team’s break-up, West was initially hesitant to answer before ultimately giving his thoughts on how hard it is to have success in the league and why that meant that Lakers trio should have stayed together:
“I’d rather not get into the drama of the Lakers. I’d rather not. Phil had an incredible career, okay? He coached some fantastic players. I think his secret was that he could get them to play together, and when you have a lot of great players, you’re balancing a lot of different things. Some people have really big egos, and some have well-placed egos, and I think at the end of the day his run here was great. He had some of the greatest players that have ever played. There have been more great, great players playing for the Lakers than any franchise in the league. And so people who are fans of the Lakers, they look and they say ‘well, this is what we’re going to get back to.’ But listen. This business is hard. It is really hard. In this league today, you have to have two great players that are very versatile that can play together, and you have to have someone who can put them in an environment, a coach, that will allow them to prosper and make the team prosper. From a distance, I watched the break-up and I always said to myself ‘How sad. It shouldn’t have happened.'”
West may have wished things would have gone differently, but by the point the Lakers traded O’Neal there was really no other option for them. It was clear that no matter what Jackson did, that Bryant and O’Neal’s partnership was unsalvageable and that there were no more titles to be mined there.
Things still worked out ok for both parties, with O’Neal going on to win another title in Miami while Bryant hung around and won two more in Los Angeles, with Jackson even coming back to coach him.
The separation has even allowed Bryant and O’Neal to get along now, and while it would have been ideal if they could’ve kept playing together, neither would probably complain too much about the way things turned out.
Bryant went so far as to say he ‘needed’ O’Neal to win a championship with the Heat.