Stats with team: 27.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 57.5 FG%
Accolades with team: Seven-time All-Star, league MVP, three-time champion, three-time Final MVP, six-time 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA, three-time 2nd Team All-Defense , scoring champion
One of the biggest free-agent pickups of all time and arguably the first such move of its kind, opening the doors for the likes of James and Durant to follow suit years later, Shaquille O’Neal leaving Orlando, Florida, for the bright lights of LA changed the landscape of the Association forever.
Once O’Neal left the small-market franchise that drafted him for one of the biggest brands and markets in the world, it became more palatable for free agents later on to do the same.
O’Neal was hugely successful during his time with the Magic, winning a scoring title, reaching the Finals and receiving All-Star honors all four years. But he still chose the Lakers in the summer of 1996 and for a variety of reasons, with off-court endeavors and treatment by Magic fans during his free agency – when they strongly voted against O’Neal being worth the $115 million Orlando were reportedly offering him – playing apart.
Of course, the monster seven-year, $121 million contract the Lakers signed him to certainly had a hand in matters, as did the fact that the Magic tried to low-ball O’Neal with their original free-agent offers.
Whatever the reason, in the end, LA won out, causing jerry westthe Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations at the time, to compare O’Neal committing to Los Angeles to the birth of his children:
When the deal was complete, West, a Hall of Fame player and National Basketball Association champion who also helped lead the legendary 1960 United States Olympic team, compared his feelings with those at life-altering moments. “At about 2:15 in the morning when we signed the contract, it was probably the most relieved I’ve ever felt in my life,” West said. “I really can’t explain it. I’ve often thought that the birth of my children was something that I’d never forget. Just the excitement of this, for us to sign him, really rates right there with that.”
Jerry West might love basketball just a bit more than the rest of us.
Of course, O’Neal’s tenure with the Lakers was an enormous, transcendent success, as O’Neal and Kobe Bryant would form arguably the greatest big man/guard duo of all time, winning three titles together and playing some of the most exciting, dominating basketball the league has ever seen.
Pretty easy choice here for the Lakers’ best free-agent signing ever.
Honorable Mentions: LeBron James, Jamaal Wilkes