In 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers approached the offseason looking to end an era with a bang. While other teams were gearing up to stop the awesome duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the front office wanted to expand. How so? They enlisted the services of two more soon to be Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and Gary Payton. They were ready. Well, at least on paper.
This was before LeBron James, Dywane Wade, and Chris Bosh joined forces in Miami. Well before Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen joined the Boston Boston Celtics. Payton and Malone wanted a ring before they retired and joining Kobe and Shaq, who won three prior to their arrival, seemed like the easiest way. But something went wrong.
During the regular season, the Lakers took no prisoners. Kobe averaged 24 points per game, O’Neal averaged 21.5 points, Payton 14.6, and Malone 13.2 points per game. Although they would go on to win 56 games, there were issues well before that heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.
What went wrong with this team started as soon as they hit camp. The first issue was Phil Jackson and the Triangle Offense. Jackson’s offense won championships before so inserting Payton didn’t seem like an issue for the coach. However, he’s never had a player like Payton before either. Gary made his career running an offensive with freedom. He was no BJ Armstrong or Derek Fisher. For his career, Payton averaged 16.3 points and 6.7 assists. The Triangle asked Payon to be who he wasn’t and he and the team struggled because of it.
The second problem was injuries to Karl Malone. Yes, he was up there in age and no one can outrun Father Time. Just so happened, his clock ran out for him and the Lakers at the wrong time.
The other issue was the ongoing feud between Kobe and Shaq. This was nothing new between the two, but what for whatever reason, what was either swept under the rug or shrugged off in the previous years finally came to light. The tension in the air was brewing and you could sense that changes were coming after the season.
Now, with all of that said, this team watched Bryant miss close to 20 games while dealing with his sexual assault charge, Malone and his injuries, and the feud between the two stars. The most dominant players in the game still managed to win close to 60 games. They were still on track to win a championship when the playoffs started. But there was another problem brewing in the East. It was called– defense.
Over the course of their run, the Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers were too much for any team. No coach, no matter how good they were on the offensive side or defensive side just could not devise a scheme to stop them. Well, Larry Brown had seen enough. He lost the 2001 Finals to the Lakers while with the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers and had three seasons to build a defense to what Brown saw as impenetrable.
With Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace manning the paint, the ’04 Pistons mirrored the ’88-90 Bad Boys teams led by Isaiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, and Joe Dumars. All it took were players buying into a system and willing to put stats to the side and execute Brown’s plan.
As the ’04 Finals began, it was evident the Los Angeles Lakers were in trouble. The Pistons never backed away from their plan. Clog the lane with Wallace (Ben) and Wallace (Rasheed) and let Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups harass Bryant and Payton.
What made this easier is that Payton was still stuck in cement in terms of running the offense. Jackson, knowing this, remained stubborn and stayed the course. Even with his resume, Payton was no match for Billups. All that was left was containing Kobe. With Hamilton and Prince taking turns, that didn’t present a problem. Shaq and Kobe both averaged over 22 points per game but help was nowhere to be found.
But still, the Pistons had to score points. Defense wins championships and the Lakers were middle of the pack in that area. With older players, they struggled to keep up with the youthful legs of Detroit. But the main issue for the Lakers that series was when they lost Malone. In Game 2, Malone went down with an injury and never fully recovered. Yes, Jackson could sub in Horace Grant who had won titles with Kobe and Shaq before but he was not enough to offset the hungry and determined Wallace towers.
The Pistons would go on to win the series 4-1 and that was the end of the Lakers’ fabulous run. Shaq left, Malone retired and Payton left as well. What could have been ended the moment Phil Jackson refused to adapt. He refused to believe that a great defense could stop a great offense. The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers were the blueprint of what a super team could look like if coached correctly and what it could resemble if done wrong.
Too many things went wrong but the real issue was not a feud or age. The Lakers didn’t achieve their ultimate goal because the Detriot Pistons were just better than them.