When a roster has Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’ Neal, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Devean George on it, the chance of winning a championship is high. Add in Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Horace Grant and that chance rises tremendously.
All of the above players were on the 2003-04 Lakers super team that is one of the most talented rosters ever put together by any sports franchise.
The expectations for this team were, well, a championship or bust, as it could not be anything less with so many great players and Phil Jackson in the driver’s seat.
The regular season was a success as a 56-26 record got the Lakers a number-two seed in the Western Conference behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves. They likely would have been the number one seed if not for Malone’s knee injury early in the season that caused him to miss 39 games. Nonetheless, they were playoff bound.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers breezed past the Houston Rockets 4-1. In the Western Conference semifinals, they beat the San Antonio Spurs 4-2. And, finally, they defeated the Timberwolves in the conference finals, 4-2.
Then, there were two.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons.
The 2004 Pistons team had one of the best starting lineups in NBA history which included Chauncey Billups, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace.
But, so did the Lakers as Payton, Bryant, George, Malone and O’ Neal rounded out the starting five.
So, how did the Lakers lose?
The first game in Los Angeles was won 87-75 by the Pistons. The Lakers won game two by 8 points in overtime. The next three games, all of which were in Detroit, were won by the Pistons with the closest game being an eight-point margin. Malone had re-injured his right knee in Game 2 but was able to finish the game. Regardless, he was not much of a factor in the series scoring only four points in 44 minutes in Game 1 prior to the injury.
In each of their four losses, the Lakers went through a quarter, or two, in which they were outscored by more than seven points, fell behind and did not catch up.
Rebounding was also a factor, as the Pistons out-rebounded the Lakers by eight rebounds per game (Basketball-Reference).
In addition to being out-rebounded, the Pistons starters, who all averaged double-digit points, outscored the Lakers starters 76.2 ppg to 64.2 ppg (Basketball-Reference). Payton and Malone, two hall-of-fame players, combined to score only 9.2 ppg. Shaq and Bryant lead the way for the Lakers, scoring 49.2 of the team’s 81.8 ppg. There was not enough help from a team that was expected to win it all with the talented roster they put together.
Slow starts, lack of scoring and rebounding is why the Lakers lost. Not to mention the Pistons outplayed them in nearly every aspect of the game.
The 2003-04 Lakers will always be known as a “super team,” however, they will be remembered more so for not not living to the hype of their roster.