By the start of the 2003-04 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were title contenders breaking apart at the seams from the weight of the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant feud. This isn’t new news, both Gary Payton and Karl Malone have talked about it before.
How bad was it? How about “camp Kobe” and “camp Shaq” bad.
Kareem Rush spent his first two NBA seasons in the middle of the Lakers war, for the final two seasons of the Kobe/Shaq era, and he talked about it on SiriusXM NBA Radio with Tom Byrne & Rick Mahorn (you can listen to the interview below).
“Yeah, it was like a real issue. We actually had like a separation of the team. We had a big man alliance and a guard alliance. I had to pick Kobe’s side.”
How deep was that split? For a while Shaq would not let long-time Laker trainer Gary Vitti (who had been with the team since the Showtime era, and is just now entering his final year) tape him up before games because he was allegedly a Kobe guy.
Now for the “what ifs.” As Shaq has said, could the Lakers have won three more titles if that group stayed together?
“Shaq got three Finals MVPs and I think Kobe wanted his, so it didn’t work out for us. We definitely had talent to win more than three titles.”
Of course, now everything is good between Shaq and Kobe, with both regretting their hard-headed youth. But talking about that era is a fun August diversion.
What I still wonder: Despite all the dysfunction, if Malone had been healthy for the 2004 Finals would the Lakers have won the title anyway?