Some of those charges came from Glen Rice's agent, David Falk, who says the Lakers broke promises on their way to dealing Rice to the Knicks. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has publicly accused the Lakers of going on the cheap. At an Internet conference in LA on Sept. 14, Cuban jokingly referred to O'Neal as "the Big No-Extension" and to the Lakers as " Shaq and his band of merry minimums," drawing laughter from O'Neal and his agent, Leonard Armato, who were also speaking at the conference.
The luxury tax is no laughing matter, however. It will make its debut in the 2001-02 season with an estimated threshold of $57 million. Then every team must pay a tax of $1 for every dollar above the threshold that it spends on player salaries. So far the Knicks, Mavericks and Trail Blazers have expressed a willingness to incur the tax; until recently Lakers owner Jerry Buss had promised to avoid it, raising questions about LA's ability to compete. O'Neal and Kobe Bryant will earn almost $30 million this season, but the Lakers believe they can add role players to that nucleus and remain in contention without breaking the $57 million barrier next year.
Buss admits that the NBA has changed since the 1980s, when he was the one known for paying extravagant salaries. Now he is an endangered species: a private owner who derives most of his income from his basketball team. League sources estimate that the Lakers' annual profits are in excess of $40 million. Buss can afford to pay some tax, but he can't get caught up in an arms race with Internet billionaires.
Adding fuel to the fire were reports that the Lakers were shopping Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Robert Horry—virtually everyone with a multiyear contract except O'Neal and Bryant. Buss doesn't deny it On the contrary, he suggests it was business as usual for a team that has turned a profit in each of the 21 years he has owned it: "We may have the opportunity to go after a major free agent next year or the year after, and wouldn't it be nice to have some cap room?"
By summer's end the Lakers had filled their biggest hole by acquiring power forward Horace Grant from the Sonics as part of the multiteam trade involving Rice, and soon they should have locked up O'Neal for the long term. Most important, after an off-season of unusual criticism, Buss now says he will pay the luxury tax if need be: "If it turns out that other people are gaining too much of an advantage, then I'm going to have to fight."