Misunderstood Lakers Teams: 2003-04

Kurt —  September 11, 2009


Today we turn this space over to Aaron, who reached out to me wanting to write about the 2003-04 team. Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out the Lakers podcast with the LA Times/ESPN where Brian and I talk some about the point guard position this year and a little about teams like this.

Recently Kurt wrote about the Lakers team he missed. Today it’s time to think about the Lakers team that we have repeatedly been told not to miss: The 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers.

The first time you saw Mitch Kupchak sandwiched between Gary Payton’s mouth and Karl Malone’s rippling biceps, the Lakers were officially welcoming one of the best Point Guards and Power Forwards in NBA history to the city. Lakers fans everywhere began to envision basketball perfection, perpetually on display, performed by four of the games all time greats on basketball’s biggest Staples sponsored stage. The Lakers were freshly removed from three straight championship titles achieved by surrounding their two all universe talents with quality roll players that sat on the perimeter and made opponents pay for double teaming Kobe and Shaq. Even while dominating the field, Los Angeles had long been outplayed by PG’s and PF’s. Now, you add a hall of fame PG and a hall of fame PF to a team already consisting of a hall of fame SG and a hall of fame center—even Bill Plaschke could tell this team was as loaded as Lindsay Lohan.

As of today, this team is laughed at within several basketball circles. When any team adds star player(s) to a team with other star players, the line “Look at the 2004 Lakers!” is readily used. It is time that misconception and a bunch of others are laid to rest. Here are the reasons the 2004 Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers did not underachieve and why history should rewrite itself. These guys were labeled as the “Hall of Fame Team” and years later it seems they should be labeled as the All Misrepresented Team.

1) Karl Malone Got Hurt

The Lakers started out of the box with 18 wins and only 3 losses. That’s right… they were on pace for 70 wins. Everything was going to plan as the whole league was intimidated by the “Hall of Fame Team.” Team being the operative word, the Lakers were actually playing like one. It was some of the most beautiful basketball I have ever seen as the Mailman and the Glove played with the freedom of not having to live up to their monikers for the first time in their historic careers. Unfortunately it was short lived as Karl Malone went down with a torn MCL and missed most of the season.

The team never was the same as they finished the year with a respectable but not eye popping 56 and 26 record. Malone came back for the playoffs and actually played well on one leg against Kevin Garnett, helping the Lakers win the western conference championship. Unfortunately he reinjured his knee and couldn’t play for most of the Finals as the Pistons had their way inside. Most basketball people feel a healthy Malone would have meant another Lakers world championship. Rasheed Wallace looked like…well… a healthy Karl Malone against back up Lakers PF and current Ukrainian motor scooter repair man Slava Medvedenko. Of course, a couple seasons later young Slava was out of the NBA all together, much to the delight of Lakers fans everywhere and Stephen A. Smith somewhere. At a time when European star Forwards were falling out of trees and onto the doorsteps of NBA franchises as often as Persian girls fall out of Lamar Odom’s bed and styling gel falls out of Rick Fox’s hair, the Lakers ended up with… Stanislav Medvedenko.

2) Shaq and Kobe Were Out Of Shape

We were all used to seeing Shaq out of shape, but never like this. Shaq saw his scoring average plummet to 21.5 PPG from 27.5 PPG the year before. In fact, in the Finals the Pistons didn’t even bother double-teaming him. It was the first season “the most dominant ever” was not the most dominant ever again. At just 31 years of age Shaq had taken a big step back. At a time when players like Michael Jordan, who take great care of their bodies, are still at their physical peak… Shaq was now a liability on defense and not a sure thing to score in the paint against single coverage. Actually, it was Karl Malone who ended up as the people’s favorite big man thanks to Shaq doing his best 2009 Lamar Odom impression taking so many nights off.

Something nobody could have predicted though was the condition Kobe Bryant was in after being accused of sexual assault that summer. He was quoted as saying he didn’t touch a ball the entire off-season because he was too emotionally tormented—he was not all about basketball for the first time in his life—and who could blame him. It actually showed as his physique didn’t improve from one year to the next like in seasons past, and it also reflected in his performance as he saw his FG% drop to 43.8% and his 3pt FG% sink to 32.7% in spite of playing with great talent around him for the first time as a starter in the NBA. Only a couple people know what really went down in that Colorado hotel room… but what we all do know is it wasn’t just two people who got screwed that night. Lakers fans around the world got a bad deal that season.

3) Malone and Payton Were Old

Gary Payton was 35 years old and Karl Malone was 40 years old. When folks argue that you can have too many good players on one team and reference the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers as an example it’s a little strange so many people forget this wasn’t a season where Malone or Payton were close to their primes. Neither of them was close to all-star talents at this point in their respective careers even though the 40-year-old Malone might have been closer to 35 with HGH seemingly poring out of his perfectly fitting Wranglers. So as the media and fans alike were labeling this squad an all-star team in reality they only had two all stars in Shaq and Kobe. Compare that to the 1998 Lakers who actually had 4 players make the all-star team (Kobe, Shaq, Jones, and Van Exel) and failed to even make it to the Finals. Now when Shaq goes to the Cavs the media isn’t expecting him to be the guy who can still lift a house, they are expecting him to be the guy who is the size of a house. In 2003 the media questioned whether there were enough balls to go around more than they worried about the ages of Malone and Payton.

4) Gary Payton Was Actualy Pretty Good

Many Lakers fans like to think the Glove had a disappointing year. In fact… Gary Payton is the one guy fans still get on to this day. He is the one mainly blamed for the Lakers perceived failures in 2004. In actuality it was his last good year as a pro. If the 35-year-old Derek Fisher this year could shoot 47%, pass out 6 assists a night, and put up 15 PPG like the 35-year-old Gary Payton did that season I would be the happiest Fisher hater in Los Angeles. It is also a misconception that his defense was dreadful that year. Now of course he wasn’t the defensive stopper that he was in his prime but the main reason PG’s would hurt the Lakers in the playoffs (as Tex Winter so famously serenaded the Lakers locker room with profanity at the Palace in Detroit during the Finals) was Shaq’s effort. He refused to step out and guard the pick and roll. The man apparently just saved his donut calories for the offensive end. You can’t hold Payton liable for Shaq’s extreme laziness. He pushed the ball up the floor better than any Lakers PG since Magic Johnson getting easy buckets for him and teammates making that Lakers unit often more fun to watch than any of the 3-peat teams. The Glove still fit.

5) The Lakers Had No Depth

The team had was just 5 deep with Payton, Kobe, Malone, Shaq, and Fisher. Rick Fox and Horace Grant were all but retired, Rookie forward Luke Walton didn’t play except in the Finals, and Kareem Rush was actually one of the top guys off the bench and Brian Cook played more than him. That’s right… human traffic cone Brian Cook. Devean George who was given the chance to play and play well with Fox getting up in years and being sidelined due to various injuries, I’m guessing mostly pertaining to various cosmetic and rhinoplasty procedures gone wrong. George couldn’t perform even though he was playing next to star talent and all the while being left wide-open ala Trevor Ariza in the 2009 playoffs, but Devean couldn’t deliver half of what Trevor did. And we all know who the back up PF was… say it with me Stephen A. The Lakers went from a team with 2 superstars, no good players, and 5 to 8 good roll players in their championship days to a team with 2 superstars, 2 good players, and only 1 (Fisher) good roll player. They weren’t completely the talent rich roster people like to remember. I mean you have more than 5 players to win a ring right?

6) They Actually Were A Great Team

In spite of the Malone injury, the age of Karl and Gary, the lack of depth, Kobe not being in physical or mental shape, and Shaq starting to decline, Jon Hollinger’s number cruncher still has the Lakers as the 57th best Finals team of all time right behind West Unseld’s Washington Bullets who won the title in 1978. The Lakers won a pretty tough western conference and had some great games and special moments along the way. The Derek Fisher .4 shot will be celebrated throughout the NBA for a very long while.

So, the next time you hear people make a crack about the 2004 Western Conference Champion Lakers please remind them there is another team in LA to poke fun at. There is no such thing as having too many good players on a team, just like there is no such thing as having too much money. If you want less great players on a team we can trade Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Ron Artest back for Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, Smush Parker, and Tierre Brown. That 2004 team should be given as much respect as the 2008 Lakers who lost in the Finals to the Celtics. Both teams played in the Finals without one of their top big men (Malone & Bynum) and both teams played to their capabilities. They both came up a little short, but neither team should be an example of how not to construct a roster. Both teams were good but had some major holes. I mean they weren’t the 2009-2010 Lakers or anything…

Kurt

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58 responses to Misunderstood Lakers Teams: 2003-04

  1. Agreed! Malone healthy we at least get the butterfly effect. The finals would have at least been interesting…

  2. That team really should have taken it all.

  3. I disagree with the Shaq sentiment. His scoring average dropped because there were more scoring options that year – all of their shot attempts went down. His went from 18.1 the year before to 14.1 with Karl and Gary on the team. He was still in his prime at that point, in my opinion. I think that was his last prime year.

    But man, I remember the first preseason game that year, when Malone and Payton came onto the court in purple and gold for the first time, and thinking to myself: I can’t believe the Lakers have Malone and Payton. It didn’t even really hit me how incredible this team was on paper until that moment. We almost take it for granted now. There hasn’t been a team so assembled before or since, and we may never see a team like that again. That was a once in a lifetime thing and if Malone hadn’t been hurt/if Shaq and Kobe had been on the same page, they would’ve taken Detroit. No question.

  4. 2)
    See… that is my point. That team should not have won it all with Malone getting injured, Shaq & Kobe being out of shape, and having nobody to fill in for Malone when he got hurt. The Lakers had nobody to guard Rasheed Wallace who killed them in the post the entire series. Add to the fact that Billups had a field day because Shaq (too fat or lazy) didn’t come out and show on pick and rolls… the Lakers didn’t have much of a chance in that series.

  5. …and to think all the discussion that summer was why the Lakers should have kept Shaq and let Kobe walk.

    Ah…the presence of selective memory is a wonderful thing for fans. The point of this article in the first place – thanks Aaron.

  6. I meant could*. I was lamenting that so many things went wrong on and off the court for the players.

  7. 5. The torture of the public discussions that summer and into the next fall (What does Shaq think of Mitch? Who is Kobe’s wife talking to?) is a big part of what sparked me to start this blog.

  8. Re: Gary Payton, he was good during the regular season but he melted in the playoffs. As the pressure on him ratcheted up, his defense got worse and more and more he kept breaking out of the offense. He had a PER of 17.3 in the regular season that fell to 11.1 in the playoffs, his true shooting percentage went from 52.8% to 47%, his three point shooting went from 33% to 25%. When the pressure was up he wanted to try to take over the game and got away from the triangle, and that hurt the team.

    He was far from the lone issue with this team in the Finals, but he was certainly part of the problem and does not get a free pass from me.

  9. That season really came down to Malone’s injury. They were a frighteningly good team with him on the floor (probably not a 70-win team, but probably 65-68 easily). Without his presence and passing (which I can’t say enough about, he was a crafty old player), and chiefly due to the complete lack of depth mentioned above, just a Finals team…and not a great one.

    And really, reflecting on the lack of depth really explains why Kupchak/Buss traded Shaq after that season–Shaq had good trade value still, and the young assets acquired in the deal eventually turned into Jordan Farmar, Odom, and Gasol. Granted, it took three and a half years for that to happen (and another year to win a championship), but it’s very, very rare for a team to completely blow up, leaving only three players (and only one and a half starters in Kobe and Fish) from a previous Finals squad and return to the Finals (twice!) within 4-5 years, and still have enough talent that all the experts seem to be anticipating yet another Finals appearance at the very least.

  10. I was a big Karl Malone fan and always will be, so the knee injury just killed me that season.

    On one knee, Malone effectively neutralized Tim Duncan and KG in the playoffs, the current and 2003 league MVP’s. He was 40. Rediculous. That’s like Jordan neutralizing Kobe in 2003. Never would have happened.

    You could tell he was out of gas in the finals, though. As soon as he came off the court, Rasheed became the straw that broke the camels back.

    If I was Karl, I would look at that season as my proudest accomplishment. He gave it his physical all. He was the glue that held together the team that just couldnt get along. He was Kobe’s shoulder to lie on. He was Shaq’s motivator. He was the reason we took 4 in a row from the defending champs in the playoffs. He was the reason we got by the MVP, and he was the reason we actually won Game 2 of the finals by locking down Rasheed.

  11. Aaron, thank you for this great write up. To this day, whenever this team comes up in conversation, I maintain that if Malone had not been reinjured before the Finals, the Lakers would have won it all that year. Maybe I’m ignoring other factors, but to me and a lot of other die hard Laker fans who watched nearly every game that season, Karl Malone was the glue that held this team together.

    With all the turmoil and drama that went on that year, Malone was a source of stability. And he played his ass off. He was absolutely brilliant in the San Antonio series and gave Duncan as bad a time as anyone else I’ve seen. I just don’t buy that the Pistons were a better team that year than the Spurs (At the time, many were saying that this semi-final matchup was basically the NBA Finals-whoever won would go on to win it all).

    And Aaron, I completely agree with you on the decline of Shaq. This was the year that he stopped giving a damn and didn’t keep himself in shape. And it showed out on the floor. Not to say he still wasn’t one of the best players in the league, but he wasn’t the dominant player we had come to know and love. This is when I started to side with Kobe. Although he may have been significantly distracted with the court case, Kobe Byrant continued to be one of the hardest working players this game has ever seen and gave it his all night in and night out. I can’t say the same about Shaq. And when he went to Miami and immediately lost weight/got in shape, I took that as a slap in the face as a Laker fan.

    One thing I have to agree with Kurt on though, and that is that Shaq cannot be blamed alone for Billups torching us in the Finals. Payton had already dropped off significantly throughout the playoffs and got burned time and time again by Chauncey while trying to do his own thing on offense. Billups outscored Payton 105-21 in five games. That is astounding! IMO, it was a pathetic performance and it appeared to me that he just didn’t care.

  12. I became a lakers’ fan that season. I am a fair weather fan:)

  13. man, i still think we would’ve won the whole darn thing if malone had been healthy. grr.

    too bad for payton he had to be on the other end of chauncey billups’s coming-out party.

  14. Totally agree with Daniel and Travis re: Malone’s importance to that team. I distinctly remember being completely surprised by what a great passer Malone was that year. I had never watched many Jazz games, but my impression of Malone was always that he was just Stockton’s finisher. In reality, he was a great, great post passer–and he could hit that elbow jumper like nobody’s business. In both of those respects, his role on the 03-04 team was surprisingly similar to Gasol’s role on our current team. I guess it should come as no surprise that the team fell apart when he went down.

  15. I agree that Malone makes that a big difference in those finals. But, to be fair, we need to give Detroit some credit there. For a stretch of the last month of the season and through the playoffs that Pistons team was playing as good on defense as any team has done for a stretch.

    Still, would loved to have seen taht series with a healthy Malone.

  16. Re: Malone
    I’m sorry I didn’t write more than a couple lines about how dynamic Malone was at the start of the season while healthy, but the post was long enough. After being beaten by Malone’s Jazz for so many years in the playoffs many fans didn’t want to see him come to LA… but after the first preseason game he became a crowd favorite with his passing, hustle, passion, and talent.

    Re: Payton
    His defense in the playoffs was a giant misconception. Phil Jackson quoted Tex Winter in “The Last Season” as saying the reason PG’s were killing the team was because of Shaq’s atrocious pick and roll defense. The story goes that nobody would stand up to Shaq (even Phil) admitted Jackson… but little old Tex chewed him out in the locker room at halftime of an NBA Finals game prompting Shaq to yell “Shut your mouth old man.”
    As far as Payton losing it offensively… yes he struggled with his shot. But he didn’t’ really break the triangle much. That is another misconception. He complained about being restricted by the triangle and used that as an excuse for his poor offensive play.

  17. I think the problem of that team was the arrogance… A lot of “stars” together wasn’t so productive…

    In an All-Star game, e.g., that kind of teams is acceptable… but when there are so many stars, the problem will be there…

    And THAT team was a DREAM TEAM… my sweet Jesus, all the best players of the 90′s in the Lakers 2003-04…

    Anyway…

    After that, the rebuilding started… and finished in the 2009 Championship =D

    I love this blog! the information here is awesome!

    I invite you to visit my Lakers blog… it’s in spanish, because I’m from Argentina…

    I hope you like it =)

    Yours sincerely,

    Nicolas Martinez.

  18. Aaron,

    Thanks for solid write up on the 2003-2004 team. Being a Laker fan living in Detroit that was a very tough summer for me. A healthy Malone would’ve made it a competitive series, but I doubt if the Lakers could’ve beat the Pistons. Here are my recollections of that series:

    1. I agree Shaq was very pathetic defensively, but he was money on offense with Ben Wallace covering him one on one. He shot 63% from the field and should’ve got more shots than 18 per game compared to Kobe’s 23 per game.

    2. Kurt was right…GP was terrible that series. He was okay defensively…but defensively he was non-existent. He averaged 4pts and his confidence was so hit that he only took 5 shots a game passing up a lot of wide open looks. I was used to seeing an aggressive attacking GP…but he played passive and scared that series.

    3. Kobe ego got the best of him. First, there’s the myth that Prince shut Kobe down. False. Kobe beat him repeatedly off the dribble, but Ben and Sheed played great defense protecting the rim. When Kobe started settling for outside jumpers he couldn’t get anything to fall. Of course, we all kept waiting and expecting Kobe too bust out and have a great shooting game, but it never happened (save game 2 in flashes).

    4. Lakers…not just Kobe….went stone cold. Kobe shots were highly contested, but the rest of the team had a lot of open looks. Here are their % for the series:
    Kobe 38%
    Fish 31%
    George 39%
    GP 32%
    Malone 33%
    Slava 35%
    Luke 39%
    Rush 31%

    5. The Pistons peaked at the right time. Their defense and hustle was the difference. They outrebounded Lakers by 8 per game with Ben outboarding Shaq 14 to 10.

  19. Oops meant to say GP was non-existent offensively in that series.

  20. Just what I needed in this summer, talk about that 2003-04 Lakers All Star team. Malone, Payton, Bryant and let’s not forget Shaq, man, only if Karl had stayed healthy for the Finals, it would have been ours for sure. I remember him carrying the Lakers it seemed like in the Playoffs that year all by himself. That Pistons team really did not have any superstars, just a bunch of really good players that year. This blog is just great with the variety of posts it has throughout the year, I almost look forward to the summer here. Great writeup Aaron, you know what you were talking about here.

    “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with It.” – Colin Powell

  21. I think it would be a good idea to at least proof read something once or twice before it is published on a blog as well known as this one is. Very good content, but you continually called role players roll players.

  22. That was a frustrating season as a fan. Kobe’s legal issues, and the thought that he could walk in the summer of 2004 were a big worry. The constant Shaq/Kobe bickering grew old, as well, and it was clear that some of the cogs from the 2000-02 title run had lost their steam, especially Fox. And who can forget Shaq’s demand for big money, when he clearly was slipping?

    I had truly, deeply hated Malone and Payton for their entire careers. Malone won me over, and I agree with every positive thing anyone else has said about him in prior posts. His passing was great, he really was a glue guy, and had he been healthy I think the Lakers would have had a realistic shot at knocking off Detroit come June.

    Despite a few positives, I can’t look back fondly on that team. Those Finals were absolutely painful — a bunch of guys missing open shots, with Kobe trying to pull an MJ circa Boston Garden in May 1986.

    Then after that loss — which most fans never saw coming after topping the Spurs — we got to watch Fish walk away (and for that contract, who could blame him?); Buss chase Phil off to Montana; Shaq to demand a trade and then receive his wishes; and Kobe making like Brett Favre and waiting forever before he finally announced what his plans were.

    A fellow Laker fan said something to me shortly after the Finals and everything fell to pieces: “It’s Armageddon!”

    And the worst thing about this season in my memory was that it paved the way for the 2004-05 Lakers, which was easily the most miserable season this franchise has ever endured in the 25+ years I’ve been following them.

    Sorry, Aaron, but I understood this team all too well — and it’s not one I’ll ever look back upon fondly, aside for a few small aspects of the season (Malone, 0.4, Kareem Rush saving the T-Wolves series).

  23. You know, looking back, Kareem Rush isn’t that bad a player. So much for all the alleged “character issues” he might’ve had in Charlotte; Bickerstaff’s probably on crack.

    In addition to the 6 threes he tossed in against the Wolves, I also remember him hitting a game winner in Denver and making quite a few timely threes over the years. Oh, and I remember his career game in Sacramento, when the Lakers were blown out in that same season (think only Payton was uninjured out of the 4 studs).

    Seriously, let me pose this question to anyone who wishes to answer: Kareem Rush or Sasha Vujacic?

  24. Don’t overlook the fact that the crappy 2004-05 season led to the second piece in our 2008-09 championship run after we had added Lamar: one Andrew Bynum, the 10th pick in the 2005 draft.

    I also felt that the team got constantly screwed over by the officials in the 2004 Finals. In a couple of the games it seemed that every member of our entire guard and wing corps had three fouls by halftime…they were calling an amazing number of touch fouls on the perimeter. Our very own “homer” radio color man (Mychal Thompson) even called the officiating “fishy” after Tayshaun Prince was not called for a foul when he shoved Kobe on the hip as he went up for a jumper.

  25. The doldrums of summer…

    I’ve been a Laker fan since ’91 when my brother’s Bulls smothered my LA team via 4 straight wins, even taking 1 from the GWF. I was 10yo then and I could not let go since.

    My memories as a fan started with pain… my story has always been about redemption. Sure its nice to build a foundation of almosts when we finally get over but its nice to reminisce on failures and how it led to success.

    This is why I enjoyed the post so much Aaron. It gave me a trip down memory lane that was once a truly happy memory even though it was 3 wins shy of the ultimate prize.

    For me there’s no better joy than the one coming from pain… Call it the sunshine after the rain.

  26. Between the constant drama and the Finals beatdown, this season is one I’m almost as anxious to forget about as the three that came after it.

    I’ll reiterate the comments made earlier that while Payton had a pretty good regular season, he was a disappointment in the playoffs and an absolute disaster in the Finals. That disappearing act still gives me nightmares.

    I’m not sure I agree that a healthy Malone would have tilted the balance quite as much as some are suggesting. Wallace had a couple of good games but he didn’t exactly dominate the series. Besides, it was primarily offensive futility that doomed the Lakers, with Kobe often forcing the issue to no avail and role players unable to hit shots. Shaq was the only one who could score efficiently (just as well, since his defense was indifferent and he saved all his rebounding for Game 4) and he was being single-covered. This was just a comprehensive series victory by a team that was younger, hungrier, deeper, and more cohesive, and while Malone would have certainly helped, I don’t think he would have changed the eventual outcome.

  27. One very BIG point missing from this was the fact that this Lakers team was thisclose to starting the playoffs as the #4 seed and not the number 2. If memory serves, this was the last year with the 2 division format for each conference. The Wolves had the #1 locked, the Spurs were locked into the #3 seed and the Cowtown Queens would have won the Pacific with a win on the last night…but lost. Enter one of the greatest nights by Kobe – the Portland game. He singlehandedly willed us to this win with his 3 pointer to force OT and the other to win (and silence) the Rose Garden. Selfproclaimed Kobe-stopper Reuben Patterson was draped on him and Kobe still delivered the rediculous. We went from being the 4 seed to being the 2 in a matter of minutes. I just don’t think enough is made of that shot. Kobe’s 3s gave this team (already on the verge of a meltdown) one last jolt to get ready for the playoffs. With this game, the Kareem Rush game 6 and of course .4 (which I was fortunate to be at living here in SA), this team sure did have a lot of great memories for a team that didn’t win it all.

  28. Aaron, you put the good face on 2004 and Chris J. put the bad face on it. From both we have a better perspective of what that team was.

    However, I have to agree with LRob and Joel — Malone wasn’t the difference in the team winning and losing, even though I thought so in the immediate aftermath. There were too many other pieces that just didn’t fit right that year. Sure, Malone would have brought us more wins in the series, but not three more.

    We replaced Fish with GP to help our defense (remember all our complaints about Fish not being able to move then?) and that didn’t work out too well. We all saw the defensive big fish in the middle and that wasn’t going to change. Detroit was able to stop everyone but Shaq, while he and GP were letting them score on the other end. Perhaps it became like the 2005-2007 years, when Kobe didn’t trust his teammates, therefore he wouldn’t pass to them. There was just too much dysfunction to say Malone would have magically fixed the situation.

  29. Seriously, Rush or Vujacic (refer above)? Someone answer!

  30. 29. Vujacic is the better defender. Now, if he stays in his shooting slump, it becomes hard, but I’ll usually take the defender.

  31. RIP Mr. Beck.

    On a basketball note, wow…Turkey taking down Spain. Spain’s in a funk right now, but Turkey looks impressive compared to last year.

    29 – 2008 Sasha anyday, but otherwise it’s hard for me to answer, I don’t seem to remember a ton about Rush aside from his performance in the WCF clincher in 04. My instincts would say Rush because he didn’t force as much as Sasha, but then again he could never change the flow of a game like Sasha (for better or for worse). Can’t remember too much about his D.

    Good post, Aaron. Obviously with a topic as controversial as that team, everyone will find something to disagree with. But I thought it was a well-written, well thought-out piece (although a small note: it’s “role” players). The bottom line is that the 08 failed Finals team came out of nowhere, on the heels of 3 disappointing seasons, which is why we remember it fondly. The 04 team came on the heels of a three-peat with sky-high expectations starting from the offseason, so the loss to the Pistons was seen as ultimate failure. That’s colored the perception of a lot of us. I’d forgotten the good things about that Lakers team, like the 18-3 start, and this post did a good job of bringing back some perspective.

    The one thing I do disagree with is the GP note. Kurt’s on the money, GP’s performance in the playoffs was a disappointment. And stats don’t tell the entire story; GP disrupted the team system and broke out of the triangle far too often. I agree that GP was far from done that year, but he just didn’t fit the triangle as ideally as he did other systems. But again, everyone has their own opinion, and this was a strong write-up.

  32. (28),
    Nobody is saying Malone “magically” fixes anything. But I don’t think it was a coincidence this team was on pace for 70 wins and as soon as Malone went down was never close to the same. When a team with no depth loses one of its best player it makes a huge impact. We can’t just look at Malone not being able to play or play well… we have to look at the player that fills in for him. And there is a giant drop off from Malone (good PF) to Slava (awful PF). Wallace did kill the Lakers that Finals. He was the only guy they could go to one on one to generate offense. They didn’t go to Billups one on one… they put Billups in pick and rolls with Shaq. An injured Malone and a healthy Slava made Rasheed look like Tim Duncan in the post that series.

    It also hurt the Lakers on the offensive end. With no Malone the Pistons used that extra defender to help on Kobe and not on Shaq who again they left mostly single covered. Detroit left LA’s PF unguarded on the perimeter and unlike Ariza who was left wide open in the 2009 playoffs, Slava couldn’t make a shot. That is what hurt the Lakers offense more than Payton cooling off from the outside.

  33. 29)
    Re: Sasha
    Sasha had one good year which is one more than Rush has ever had. Sasha is a better ball handler, passer, defender, and works harder.

    31)
    Re: Expectations
    Its hard not to let expectations change your view of a team but thats exactly what I try to do. The only reason the 2004 loss was more disappointing for me than the 2008 Finals loss was because of the age of the ’04 team… I knew it would be their last shot. My expectations going into both Finals were actually guarded. I did think however we would beat Detroit before the series started expecting Malone of course would be able to contribute.

    But as I surprised my friends before the Celtics series telling them we didn’t have a very good chance to beat the celtics, my expectations were not very high. I didn’t think we would win because I didn’t think we had enough size i the front-court with Bynum gone. I don’t and didn’t think Gasol can play a full game at center and be effective against other true centers. That playoffs he didn’t have to go against a true center until the Finals. It shows you why the Spurs do everything the can to have Duncan matchup with PF’s. Gasol outplayed superstar PF Kevin Garnett in the post but got outplayed by average Center Kendrick Perkins. I don’t think fans know how important it was to our 2009 championship that Andrew Bynum was willing to play hurt allowing Gasol to play more at his natural position of PF. Sorry for the tangent.

    Re: Payton
    My memory is Gary didn’t break out of the triangle as much we people like to believe in the playoffs. He played up tempo and less triangle in the regular season where he had more successes. But Phil wanted to play more structured basketball in the playoffs and Gary’s game suffered. Any ball dominating PG like Gary will suffer in the triangle when play-making duties usually fall into Kobe’s hands and rightfully so.

  34. I have mixed feelings about this season. It was such a shock seeing the team implode during the Finals after what had been a rather stirring, improbable run through the Western Conference playoffs. Then of course the offseason aftermath was just brutal.

    Ultimately, though, I’m sort of glad this team didn’t win the title. Had they brought home the banner, the front office would have been obliged to try to keep the Shaq-Kobe nucleus together, and I just don’t know how much longer that was going to work (or if Kobe would have simply chosen to jump ship). The Lakers would almost certainly not have become this current squad – beautifully rebuilt, a title in the pocket, and brimming with future promise – had they not been obliged to blow it up after the disastrous ending to ’04.

    Also, frankly, I loathed Malone throughout his entire Utah career and it was always hard for me to root for him as a Laker, although I did, and he did have a fine season with the Lakers when healthy. Had the Lakers won, the Mailman might have stayed on an extra season or two and broken Kareem’s scoring record, and I’m glad that record has stayed with Cap!

  35. Off-topic, but fantastic write-up by Blinebury on Stockton. We (*cough the media*) revere Michael Jordan’s work ethic because he’s marketable, and so we’re all told about his intensity over and over again. Stockton may have worked just as hard, if not harder, and this is one of the few articles I’ve seen that pays tribute:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news;_ylt=Ap_jIotLF3d0AER.QTFgjhu8vLYF?slug=ys-stocktonhall090809&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

    I like KD’s disclaimer at the very beginning of this list. I think AI should be higher, and I’m scratching my head at Maxiel, but it’s fun to see a less well-known guy (but among certain circles considered the best dunker in the world) make the list:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/The-10-best-dunkers-of-the-last-decade;_ylt=AiEa.f3fl5aWa0XsV31K0Ty8vLYF?urn=nba,188902

    And I absolutely love that Woj gives everyone equal crap, even the man the media worships. There should have been more Woj’s in the era of MJ:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news;_ylt=AlOTqZLLa9VgCae03dlvcOW8vLYF?slug=aw-jordanhall091209&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

  36. OT: Kelly Dwyer’s latest top 10 list is for the best dunkers for the last decade, and let’s just say it’s highly questionable.

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/The-10-best-dunkers-of-the-last-decade?urn=nba,188902

    James White, a guy who has played a whopping 10 NBA games? Shaq? Jason effing Maxiell? Yet no Kobe, T-Mac, Wade, or even Nate Robinson?

    There are times I when think Dwyer posts things just for the sake of defying convention, and this is one of them. At least he had the good sense to rank Vince #1.

  37. Aaron,
    You are right that the Lakers were much better before Malone got hurt. The problem was he got hurt early in the season. At the end he came back, but the team had already developed its personality.

    If Malone hadn’t gotten hurt early in the season I probably agree with you that it would have negated much of the downside development.

    Either Kobe or Shaq was going to go after that season. The reason Kobe is blamed for Shaq’s trade is that he left a clear impression that he would not resign with the Lakers if Shaq was still there. There is much more to this scenario, but Kobe did put as much pressure as he could on the organization. Shaq, of course, was able to self destruct on his own.

  38. Kurt, Aaron, Snoopy:

    Agreed on most points. Vujacic is the superior defender and harder worker. But Rush is the more consistent shooter (as far as I remember), and he just had this knack at hovering around the three-point line at just the most important times in games. Did he not? I just remember a few timely threes. Granted, those comprise the few times he shone.

    Joel:

    I noticed that about Dwyer too. He seems to think that defying convention draws attention. Which it does, and I do like reading his posts. James White probably is the best open court dunker on that entire list (heck, even better than Carter) – dude can dunk between his legs from the free throw line. I think Dwyer did come back to more conventional thinking when he ranked everyone else ahead of White – as in, who actually dunked more (in traffic and on the court in general) as an NBA player.

    Snoopy:

    Maxiell’s just a terror. He doesn’t get enough touches (for good reason, the black hole) and is Kobe’s height. But despite that, dude can [i]finish[/i] in traffic. He can literally overpower an entire forest. I wonder, between Shaq and Maxiell, who the better [i]power[/i] finisher is these days. I’d put my bet on Jason.

  39. 35, I really enjoyed the Blinebury and Woj pieces. I think John Hollinger wrote once something along the lines of “if you think you’re going to break John Stockton’s all-time assists record, think again.” I think it’s a testament to his determination when Jerry Sloan says Stockton only lost in suicides and laterals once in his entire career, and I believe it.

    It’s somewhat refreshing to see someone in the media actually take Jordan to task for his over-competitiveness. It’s one thing to call on your enemies during a ceremony honoring you, but to disparage them in front of the world when you’ve already beaten them is just childish. It would’ve been nice to hear Jordan actually honor his opponents for the competition and the battles, instead of claiming he merely used them as stepping stones to higher realms. And it’s pretty interesting that while he mentioned Scottie Pippen, I didn’t hear him once mention Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Jon Paxson, Ron Harper, or Luc Longley and Bill Wennington, his two centers that repeatedly took a beating from guys like Ewing and Shaq and got paid 1/20th of Jordan’s money. All guys that helped him to his championships, without whom he’d probably have 2 titles instead of 6. Makes you wonder what Kobe’s HOF induction speech will be like in a few years.

  40. Kobe has been through so much more from the media. Jordan was mostly an idol – the first ESPN baby.

    I expect Kobe to be more gracious in his comments. He has had it thrown in his face repeatedly about him needing his teammates – Jordan did not get these comments.

  41. 38

    I know White has a reputation as a great dunker, but if you’re ranking the best NBA dunkers over the last decade, that player has to have some NBA highlights to back it up. Otherwise you could just name some random dude off the street who happens to be an incredible dunker. Maxiell I know is ferocious around the rim, but look at the resumes of players like Kobe, Wade, T-Mac, Steve Francis, etc. You have to factor in things like flair, creativity, degree of difficulty, and frequency with a list like that.

    In general terms I also have a problem with a top 10 dunkers list that includes 4 big men. Howard and Stoudemire at least have a certain amount of creativity to go with the power, but I’m not feeling Shaq and Maxiell who are just pure brute force. Like I said though, I’m sure Dwyer knew people would raise the same issues I did when they saw that list.

  42. Very interesting post.

    I remember Payton’s offensive performance disintegrating over the course of those playoff series. By the finals he was just killing the team; I wondered how Phil failed to see this.

    Familiar scenario, Aaron? Aging point guard in decline, PJ unwilling/unable to make a change…

    Unfortunately there would be no heroic, finals-victory-assuring three-point shots to bail out Payton.

  43. i don’t like reading about this team, and i don’t like seeing pictures of gary payton and karl malone in laker uniforms. its too painful for me, it brings a lot of crappy memories of all the drama and soap opera garbage that went on that season. I always had a feeling they were just going to disappoint. and to think, the highlight of this teams year came from a guy that was coming from the bench: fisher’s .04. It’s sad for me.

  44. Yeah if Karl Malone would of been healthy enough to play the entire season and in the finals, the outcome would of been much different.

  45. The biggest thing for me about that season was Buss’ refusal to trade Kobe during the season.
    Shaq was actively pushing a Kobe-McGrady swap and we now know Phil asked for Kobe to be traded.

    If Dr Buss doesn’t hold firm and lets himself be talked into a Kobe-McGrady trade…
    1)The Lakers are tied to an aging Shaq and a fragile McGrady.(Altho the next yr McGrady plays almost the whole season and is brilliant and Malone prob would have returned,not having the fight w/Kobe and his wife.)

    2)No way Kobe resigns w/Orlando,so the Magic trade him. The three teams that had offers the Magic considered were Hou,Chi…and Phoenix. Pho refused to include Joe Johnson and Orlando went w/Hou. In this alternate NBA,I really believe D’Antoni would have talked the Suns into giving up Joe for Kobe,and Kobe would have preferred Pho.
    Phoenix ends up w/Kobe,Nash and
    Amare.
    Orlando would then have had Johnson,Marion,Dwight and Varejao,and only needed to find a PG to be a contender.

    Instead Dr Buss chose Kobe and the rest as they say is history.But…
    If Malone is healthy the Lakers would have won. Which brings up the Shaq issue. Having won a title together,would Shaq have still been traded and would Kobe have really left?

  46. I’m telling you guys, Aaron = favorite poster on forumblueandgold! I like the way he thinks. I too thought that the 2004 lakers would have won easily if Malone was 100%. I disagree with him regarding Payton though, although that’s probably because I live in Seattle and saw the glove in his prime. A time when he could play D against one Michael Jordan and have SUCCESS (no kidding).

    All in all, the 2004 was a great NBA team. Their largest problem, however, was their depth. They had none, at all. And Shaq was Mr. Horribly out of shape, but still played well in the playoffs and finals. He wasn’t the dominant player of old, and his defense sucked it up, but on offense he was very close to the dominant player of old. Also, Kobe was being a little too diva-ish that year. The only year I didn’t like Kobe’s play.

  47. Stephen,
    No way Kobe stays – with Shaq here. As it was he waited to the last minute and consulted with Jerry West before re-upping with the Lakers.

    By this time the Shaq – Kobe split was irreversible and Buss knew it. That is one main reason he rebuffed Shaq’s and Phil’s request for a trade.

  48. Byron Russell calling out Michael:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news;_ylt=Au5cIwUfmyEqFAZHpqQI6LW8vLYF?slug=mc-jordanrussell091209&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

    Awesome. With this, their recent poll, and the Woj column, Yahoo Sports is king in my book right now.

  49. Craig,
    There had to have been tremendous pressure on Buss to trade Kobe.
    His head coach-who had won him 3 titles,as well as sleeping w/his daughter-and his popular star Center were asking for Kobe to be traded. The team was going thru a rough stretch in Jan. There was the horrific possiblity Kobe would be playing in a prison league for the rest of the decade.

    Deciding to pin his fortune to Kobe was a huge risk and Dr Buss took it.

    And if the Lakers win the title and then trade Shaq and Phil leaves-sorry,but the bad PR Kobe got that yr would have been nothing to what would have come his way in that event.

  50. Sun Yue just got signed by the Knicks to a partially guaranteed contract…interested to see how the Chinese Magic does with D’Antoni

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/sports/basketball/13sportsbriefs-knicks.html?_r=1

  51. Kaveh – “I’m telling you guys, Aaron = favorite poster on forumblueandgold! I like the way he thinks.”

    This does not surprise me.

  52. There may be some temporary issues signing on to FB&G as I am about to do a server move. Also, it is possible a few recent comments will be lost. I will try not to let that happen but it is possible.

  53. 42)
    Haha… well played. The difference is that Payton had a good regular season and had a guy who couldn’t play any defense (Fisher) behind him. Last year Fisher had been just awful the entier 2nd half of the year and had a guy who was hooting better and could play better defense (Brown) behind him. But a funny point indeed.

  54. I hope we don’t have to hear another year’s worth of Fisher bashing, I know you quote facts/stats and claim he’s the worst PG in the league… I’ve heard you spout that many times.
    it’s like you only want to see the negative, the guy was our starting PG on a team that won a ring, he brought intangibles, and leadership, and toughness, and if guys like Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are happy with him, then so should we be.
    I know I am. The guys had a great career, and is a decent human being.

  55. That 2004 team just wasn’t a team. It was like a team of mercenaries. There never was enough time for cohesion. You brought in two pivotal players that have never played in such a system as the triangle. I believe Shaq, Kobe and the rest did what they did and Malone and Payton played more or less like the triangle didn’t exist or was an afterthought.

    That’s what happens when you bring in people to our team with this system that no one else plays. It takes time to adjust and sometimes years….hence my feeling that they weren’t a team.

    Don’t get me wrong, I thought we were locks to win the title that year and especially against a Detroit team that had good defense but routinely couldn’t get past 90 or 100 points a game.

    Between the officials, defense, and all the breaks going the Pistons way, the Lakers made them look like a team for the ages compared to what should have happened…the Pistons losing in 5 games.

    But that’s why you play the games.

    Bye.

  56. Chris (54),
    Derek’s intangibles are what hurt this Laker team the most. His lack of foot speed on defense, his needless double teams, and his poor shot selection. Of course Fisher’s awful shooting the last 3 months of the year including the playoffs also really hurt.

    The reason Phil stayed with him is plain loyalty and also Phil’s aversion to making a lineup change late in the season risking team chemistry. The same reason Phil didn’t play Ariza in the Finals in favor of Vlad and Walton. Ariza only played one half (the first half of game 4) and the Lakers blew out the Celtics. Ariza sat out the 2nd half and the Celts came back and one the game and basically the series. That was an example of Phil’s loyalty hurting the team.

    I would be very surprised to see Derek Fisher make it to the All Star break as the Lakers starting PG. I could easily see him as sort of a player coach who didn’t get much playing time at all. That might be his best role at this stage in his career. FYI… if you thought he was bad last year… he will be a year older this year. Lets hope he doesn’t age too much this offseason.

  57. Aaron, you misremember Ariza from the 2008 Finals. First, he was injured. Second, he played about five good minutes on PP in that half then totally fell apart and was abused like everyone else. He was benched for good reason, not for loyalty. The Lakers winning that game was independent of Ariza. He simply came back too early and was not able to help the team (and we can question if he really would have helped much over the long term as he is somebody you can be physical with, and the Celtics were/are very physical). Simply, that Lakers team was not ready to win the finals. No one thing would have changed that.

  58. Kurt,
    I doubt I am misremembering Ariza from game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals because I re watched the game recently. Ariza was injured but came back in the 3rd round of the playoffs. Phil Jackson played him maybe a couple times for 1 minute increments and thats it… until the first half of game 4 of the Finals. In that first half Trevor changed the game with his hustle and athleticism. He was one of the big reasons the Lakers took a 20 point lead. He then only played something like 30 seconds in the 2nd half. I never said his lack of playing time cost the Lakers a championship, however I find it likely his lack of run in the final 24 minutes jeopardized the Lakers chances to tie the series at 2 games a piece.

    I don’t think Ariza is a good one on one defender either and I view him as only a below average starting SF but we are not comparing him to average SF’s that would be playing in his stead. Luke and Vlad played instead of Trevor… those are two of the worst players at that position who play significant minutes in the NBA. It wasn’t his stats that year or even last year that made such a big impact. It was the athleticism Trevor brought to the court that Luke and Vlad just couldn’t come close to matching.