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…