The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers saw one of the greatest collections of talent on a single team in NBA history. With a roster led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers added Gary Payton and Karl Malone, while retaining role players Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Horace Grant.
Despite Payton and Malone being over 35 years of age, the two were still great contributors on both ends of the court. The team would finish 56-26, good enough for the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed.
The Lakers wound up back in the NBA Finals where they took on the Detroit Pistons. Although they were the favorites, they ended up losing in five games, and O’Neal would get traded that summer.
However, Payton now says that had the Lakers won the 2004 NBA Finals, the plan was to keep the team together, and that the only question mark was Bryant’s free agency, according to Arash Markazi of The L.A. Times:
Gary Payton recently told me if they won the plan was to bring the band back but the biggest question was Kobe, who was a free agent. "Kobe wanted his own team. It’s just disappointing that we broke it up after one year. I really thought we’d be together for two to three years." https://t.co/PdQ7svS5Az
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 29, 2020
It’s always been believed that if O’Neal and Bryant could’ve worked through their differences, the Lakers would have won more than three championships. The 2004 NBA Finals served as the benchmark of the end of that dynasty, as the Lakers would re-sign Bryant to a long term deal and trade O’Neal to the Miami Heat.
Payton went on to win a championship with the Heat before retiring in 2007, and Malone retired in the summer of 2004. What could’ve been one of the greatest rosters ever assembled was disbanded after one year.
Obviously, there are tons of what-ifs that come with the 2003-04 Lakers. But that could be said of O’Neal and Bryant’s entire time together. Even though they won three titles and went to four Finals, there’s still a lingering sense of what could have been.