The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers are often cited as the first NBA ‘Superteam’ as well as proof that bringing stars together doesn’t always guarantee a championship.
After coming short of winning a fourth consecutive championship, the Lakers added Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and were immediately deemed the title favorites.
An outstanding start only served to raise expectations even more, but the end to the story is well-known now. The Lakers would win 56 games and go on a run to the NBA Finals before the Detroit Pistons dismantled them in five games.
If you ask Payton, the main reason the Lakers failed was the injury to Malone, as well as some other individual issues, as he recently explained on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd:”
“The big reason was Karl Malone got hurt. We were [18-3] and everybody was talking about we were going to get the Bulls’ record and stuff like that. But then people don’t get it. We had a kid, Kobe Bryant, he was a kid. He had just gotten in trouble. He had a mindset of, ‘I think I’m going to jail. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ He was going back and forth to Denver, we didn’t have him a lot. Then, all of a sudden, Shaq and the organization were having problems.”
Payton went into more details about the injury issues the team faced and the problems they caused, though his numbers were a little off:
“Karl Malone missed  games, Shaquille O’Neal missed , and then we had Kobe who missed . I’m the only guy there who plays the whole 82, and we’ve got a group of guys coming off the bench who didn’t know who they were. We had Fisher, we had Fox, we had Horace Grant, and we put it together. So when we put it together and got to the playoffs, we made a run. San Antonio was the [No. 3] team in the league that year; we beat them in [six] games. And then we got to the Finals and everything didn’t click after that. Karl tried to come back, blew up the knee, and then Kobe and everybody went on to their own thing. We let a good team in Detroit, who was rolling at the time, beat us 4-1.”
Payton’s memory didn’t lend to accurately remembering the number of games Malone and O’Neal missed, but the point remains a logical one. The Lakers struggled to develop the necessary chemistry with all of the injuries they incurred and many have acknowledged that Malone was the key to holding everything together. Losing him for an extended period was very tough.
The team would break up after this season as Malone retired, O’Neal was traded in the offseason, and Payton was dealt in the middle of the ensuing season. Many wonder what could’ve been had everything worked out for this Lakers team, but it just didn’t happen.
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