The 2003-04 Lakers were a super team on paper.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were just one year removed from three-peating, and the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton in free agency. Another title seemed destined.
But the Pistons intervened, topping the Lakers in five games in the Finals. Malone got hurt during the series, leaving plenty of Lakers followers asking “What if?”
Count Shaq – whom the Lakers traded to the Heat the following offseason – among them.
If I had one wish, I wish we could have gotten those guys a couple years earlier. Karl was older. GP was older. Wish we could have gotten them towards the end of their prime. And you know, I think we would have won that series. And then, if Karl doesn’t get hurt, I’d probably still be a Laker to this day.
It’s a nice sentiment – just one not grounded in reality.
The Lakers couldn’t have gotten Malone and Payton to accept reduced salaries and roles in their primes. They were chasing rings only because they knew their careers were near a close. When they’re still in their prime, stars of that level focus on leading a team to a title and making top dollar.
And the Lakers wouldn’t have beaten the Pistons with a healthy Malone, anyway. Malone didn’t get hurt until Game 2. In Game 1, the Pistons held him to four points on 2-of-9 shooting. The Lakers got outscored by 10 points with Malone on the floor. He couldn’t handle Detroit’s dominant defense.
The Pistons were just the better team – Malone or no Malone.
Winning cures a lot, and maybe winning the 2004 championship could have fixed the Kobe-Shaq feud (and the Kobe-Malone feud). But the Lakers weren’t winning that series even if Malone didn’t get hurt.