Is it 2004 All Over Again in LA?

In the 2003 NBA offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won three straight Championships from 2000-2002 and were looking to re-tool for another run at the Finals, made a massive splash in free agency by signing Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Horace Grant to pair with Shaq and Kobe.

Granted, Malone was turning 40 that year, but he averaged 20ppg for Utah the season prior. Gary Payton was 35 and still productive–hell, he led the Lakers in minutes in the 2004 season and played all 82 games.

Horace Grant was 38 and not nearly as productive as he was during his prime in the early/mid 1990s, and would retire after the 2004 season. But he was still a big name. The Lakers also added longtime Jazz wing Bryon Russell–who you probably know as the guy MJ pushed off of to hit the famous Game 6 Finals Clincher over in 1998.

The Lakers’ quest for a four-peat came to an end in the second round of the 2003 playoffs at the hands of the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs, so the Lakers signed these legendary veterans in order to get themselves back atop the pecking order in the Western Conference after having been dethroned.

And Vegas loved the moves: despite the fact that Kobe Bryant was coming off his rape allegations, the rift was growing between him and Shaq, and the fact that Karl Malone was 40, the Lakers were still the overwhelming preseason favorites to win it all.

It looked like it was going to work, too: they finished first in the Pacific Division with a 56-26 record, 3rd overall in the West. They easily won their first round series against Houston, then dispatched the Spurs in 6 games in the second round. They took down league MVP Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves in the Conference Finals in 6 games, and then headed to the Finals, where they were heavy favorites against the up-start but tough Detroit Pistons:

As you can see, they opened as -550 favorites.

But shockingly, they lost to the Pistons in 5 games. Other than Game 2, which LA won in overtime, they were completely smothered by the Pistons’ defense, scoring just 75 and 68 in 2 of their 4 losses in the series.

Game 5 would be Shaq’s last game as a Laker; he was traded to Miami in the offseason. Karl Malone would retire after the series, Gary Payton left for Boston, and then actually ended up winning a title with Shaq, D-Wade and the Miami Heat in 2006. But essentially the Lakers blew it all up after that Finals loss to Detroit.

There are a lot of similarities today between the 2022 Lakers and the 2004 Lakers. People have taken notice. You’ve got LeBron and AD, who have already won a title together in LA, and now they’ve added Russell Westbrook to the mix.

In free agency, they added Carmelo Anthony, an aging superstar looking for a ring. They also brought Dwight Howard back, as well as Trevor Ariza and a host of other veteran free agents.

It’s hard not to see the parallels to 2004.

Today we remember the 2004 Finals as a shining example of the Pistons’ strong defense and team chemistry prevailing over selfish superstars with over-inflated egos.

But while the 2004 Lakers obviously failed in their quest to win a Championship, let’s not act like the season was a complete failure: for one, they made it to the Finals. Along the way they took down the defending Champion Spurs, plus the best team KG ever had in Minnesota.

The 2004 Lakers were not some colossal disaster. And I think that, while there are a lot of similarities between the 2022 Lakers and the 2004 Lakers, there are also some key differences as well.

I want to do kind of an in-depth dive on the 2004 Lakers to see what really went wrong for them, because it’s not as simplistic as people think.

For one thing, Karl Malone got injured that season for basically the first time in his career. Prior to that season, he had played an incredible 1,459 of a possible 1,471 games in his career. He never got hurt–until the 2004 season. Now I know you might be thinking, “Well that’s what happens to old players: they get hurt.” And while that’s true, Karl Malone’s injury was kind of a freak thing. Look at it:

Early in the game, Scott Williams of the Suns lands on Malone’s foot and Malone goes down. It was an MCL tear that kept Malone out from December 21, 2003 to March 12, 2004–almost three months. He played 42 of a possible 82 games that season, by far the most games he’d ever missed in his career–in fact more than tripling the combined total of games he’d missed in his prior 18 seasons in the NBA.

He was never the same after the knee injury. And neither were the Lakers. They were 20-5 at that point in the season, but over their next 7 games, they went 1-6. In the 39 games Malone missed, the Lakers were 22-17.

When he came back, the Lakers went on a 14-4 run including an 11 game winning streak. So altogether with Malone in the regular season, LA was 34-9. I guess you could say 33-9 since they won the game he got hurt in, and his injury was like 4 minutes into the game, so basically they won that game without him.

Still: 33-9 with Malone, 23-17 without him. He was instrumental for that team. A lot of people today think of him as just an old guy, way past his prime who was along for the ride with Shaq and Kobe, but no: he was one of their most important players. Obviously he wasn’t the #1 scoring option for them, but he might have been their most important player in terms of leadership and holding the team together. The record speaks for itself, but also, Gary Payton said the same thing:

“The big reason [we came up short] was Karl Malone got hurt. We were 19-5 and everybody was talking about we were going to get the Bulls’ record and stuff like that. But then people don’t get it. We had a kid, Kobe Bryant, he was a kid. He had just gotten in trouble. He had a mindset of, ‘I think I’m going to jail. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ He was going back and forth to Denver, we didn’t have him a lot. Then, all of a sudden, Shaq and the organization were having problems.”

Payton also said of Malone specifically:

“Karl had never been hurt in his career, and it was a devastating injury that he couldn’t deal with. He had never missed that many games in his life.”

Malone, despite it being his first season in LA, and despite him being 40, was kind of the heart and soul of that team, both on and off the court.

Kobe was still dealing with his rape accusation case in Colorado that season, having to fly back and forth multiple times and miss numerous games. Oftentimes the Lakers didn’t even know if he would be in the lineup.

He and Shaq were publicly feuding the whole season, and essentially the bottom dropped out for their relationship. Look at some of these quotes from that 2004 season:

O’Neal said that the past comments made to the press by him and by Bryant were “almost like a game.” They could handle it, until the 2003–04 season. Just prior to the season, Bryant privately warned Jackson, “If [O’Neal] starts saying [unreasonable] things in the press, I’ll fire back … I’ve had it.” There were no public indications of animosity between the two since the 2000–2001 season. With Bryant absent from camp due to his legal situation and his recovery from knee surgery, O’Neal said “the full team is here.” Later, after sitting out an exhibition game to rest a sore left heel, O’Neal said, “I want to be right [in the regular season] for Derek [Fisher], Karl and Gary.” Bryant was again ignored by O’Neal.

When Bryant joined the Lakers in camp, O’Neal told reporters Bryant should look to be more of a passer than a scorer until Bryant’s knee was fully healed. Bryant responded that he knew how to play the guard position, and O’Neal should worry about the low post. O’Neal responded, “Just ask Karl and Gary why they came here. One person. Not two. One. Period.” O’Neal agreed that Bryant could handle playing guard, but Bryant needed advice on how to play team ball. O’Neal added that he would voice his opinions as he saw fit because the Lakers were his team. He said that if Bryant–who was scheduled to become a free agent at season’s end–didn’t like what O’Neal had to say, Bryant should just opt out of his contract; O’Neal added, “I ain’t going nowhere.” Jackson told the team to not discuss the problem further with reporters.

In a subsequent interview with Jim Gray of ESPN, Bryant questioned O’Neal’s claims of team leadership. Bryant claimed that O’Neal came into training camp “fat and out of shape”, that O’Neal blamed others for the team’s defeats, and that O’Neal previously exaggerated the degree to which injuries had affected his game as a cover for simply being out of condition. Bryant criticized O’Neal’s public lobbying for a contract extension when “we have two future Hall of Famers (Malone and Payton) playing here pretty much for free”. He also criticized O’Neal for only taking responsibility when the team won. He accused O’Neal of threatening not to put forth his best effort if he was not passed the ball more often. Bryant was also upset that O’Neal did not personally contact him amidst his legal troubles in the summer. O’Neal had his bodyguard, Jerome Crawford, call Bryant. “Everyone knows Jerome is me”, said O’Neal.

The following day, Lakers scout and former teammate Brian Shaw mediated the conflict between a furious O’Neal and Bryant. Shaw reprimanded O’Neal for yelling “Pay me” at Buss after dunking during a preseason game. Shaw turned to Bryant and told him that Jackson allowed O’Neal time to recover from the physical pounding he endured every season. Bryant, still disappointed at the support he received over the summer, told O’Neal, “You’re supposed to be my friend.” Shaw questioned why he would believe that when Bryant did not join the team for dinners on the road, failed to attend O’Neal’s wedding though invited, and did not invite a single teammate to his own wedding.

This was all going on during training camp. Can you imagine two TEAMMATES beefing this hard during a season? They weren’t holding anything back. This type of thing is unheard of nowadays–Shaq and Kobe were ripping each other to shreds in the media. This was not some internal locker room drama; it was on full display for the whole country to see.

The closest thing I can think of today is the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green beef from 2019 in Golden State, but that was mostly internal. We know they had issues with one another, but we don’t really know the full, true details other than what we saw of them yelling at one another on the bench during a game. Kobe and Shaq’s beef was 10x crazier than this.

So this was all going on during the 2003-04 Lakers season. Shaq and Kobe’s relationship was basically broken by this point, plus, on top of that, it was Phil Jackson’s final season as Lakers head coach (at least for a little while) as they did not offer him a new contract when the season ended. Many believed that was due to Kobe Bryant not wanting him back.

Shaq was also having contract issues with the front office, publicly demanding a contract extension all throughout the season. Because he was 32 at the time, the Lakers didn’t want to give him big money. Kobe was also a free agent at the end of the season.

Derek Fisher had been displaced as the team’s starting point guard by the arrival of Gary Payton, and Fisher had to adjust. Rick Fox was coming off a bad foot injury the season prior.

Despite all these distractions and all the drama and tension and in-fighting, the 2004 Lakers still managed to make it to the Finals. That’s incredible in and of itself.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem like the Lakers just imploded from within and the Pistons don’t deserve any credit for beating them in the Finals. The Pistons were a phenomenal defensive team. Ben Wallace is one of the few players who could handle Shaq in the low post–Wallace was a 4x Defensive Player of the Year. Let’s not forget about that. I mean, Shaq still averaged 26.6ppg and 10.8rpg on 63% shooting in the Finals, but Ben Wallace made Shaq work hard for it.

The Pistons’ perimeter defense was excellent, too: while Shaq shot 63% from the field in the series, Kobe, Karl Malone, Derek Fisher, Gary Payton and Devean George were a combined 82-229 from the field, or 35.8%. Tayshaun Prince held Kobe to 38% shooting in the series.

Plus, the Pistons had a deep roster full of guys who could both score and play defense: Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups each averaged 21ppg in the series. Rasheed Wallace was long and could score. And the Lakers didn’t really have anyone that could guard these guys: Kobe was a great defender, but Gary “The Glove” Payton at the age of 35 simply was not the defender he once was, and Billups abused him all series.

Let’s not just act like the Pistons got lucky. The following season, they made it all the way back to the Finals and lost to the Spurs in 7 games. In 2006, they won 64 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing to the eventual Champion Heat, then lost to LeBron’s Cavs in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, and finally in 2008 they made it to the Conference Finals once again, but lost to the eventual Champions, the KG-Pierce-Allen Celtics. The Pistons were arguably the best team in the East from 2003-2008, making 6 straight Conference Finals, 2 Finals appearances and 1 Championship.

The Pistons were deeper, they had (somewhat of) an answer for Shaq, they were better on defense, and they had more scoring options than the Lakers did. It really wasn’t a fluke at all that the Pistons won. They also had Larry Brown as their coach, and he’s one of the most storied and experienced coaches in basketball history, having won both an NBA Championship and an NCAA Championship (1988, Kansas Jayhawks).

I talked earlier about how big the Karl Malone injury was for the Lakers and how they were a completely different team with and without him. In the Finals, Malone was very bad for the first 3 games, could only play 21 minutes in Game 4, and missed Game 5 entirely after re-aggravating knee injury.

***

So while I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the history lesson, the point I’m trying to make here is that yes, while the 2022 Lakers do have a lot of similarities with the 2004 Lakers, there are also a lot of key differences.

For one, the 2004 Lakers had MASSIVE internal conflict and drama going on. There were contract disputes with management, Kobe and Shaq couldn’t stand each other, and Kobe was dealing with a serious legal matter the entire season.

None of that is true for the 2022 Lakers. Everybody’s fine with their contracts. LeBron and AD are best buddies, and it seems like Westbrook is thrilled to be back home in LA. I know Westbrook has been involved in some team drama in the past, but that was mainly with KD and the fact that they were kind of tussling over who should be the #1 guy on the team. With this Lakers squad, there is no question over who is the alpha: it’s LeBron, everybody knows it, and nobody will ever challenge him.

People draw comparisons to the additions of Melo and Dwight (two future Hall of Famers) to the 2004 team’s additions of Malone and Payton, but the difference is that the 2004 team needed both of those guys and started them. Karl Malone, as we went over earlier, was the glue of that 2004 team. Melo, on the other hand, will just be asked to provide some veteran leadership and hit threes. The Lakers are not going to be relying on Carmelo to win games for them and hold the team together. Karl Malone was an integral part of the 2004 Lakers, while Melo on the 2022 Lakers is just going to be asked to be a role player.

The 2004 Lakers began the season in a tough spot due to the conflict between Kobe and Shaq. This Lakers team will have none of that, no distractions.

In fact, I think this Lakers team will have phenomenal chemistry. LeBron and Melo are best buddies. Dwight Howard already knows how to play with LeBron and AD and has won a Championship with them before. And then you’ve got a lot of veterans like Ellington, Ariza, Bazemore–these guys aren’t here to bring drama. They’re here to win rings. They know how things work in this league. They’ve been around the block.

It all depends on how Russell Westbrook fits into the equation, because if he starts playing hero ball and making bad decisions, it could screw things up. But I don’t think LeBron and AD would have signed off on the Russ trade if they didn’t think they could make it work between the three of them.

I do agree that this 2022 Lakers team kind of has a 2004 Lakers vibe in that it is loaded with Hall of Famers and will probably be the most talked-about team in the league. But when you really take a deep dive into why the 2004 Lakers ultimately failed, I don’t think this year’s Lakers team will face any of those issues.

Either way, though, it will be an entertaining ride.

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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