On July 11, 2003, Karl Malone agreed to join the Los Angeles Lakers, following their signing of a nine-time All-Star Gary Payton earlier that week. Mailman’s intentions were clear — he wanted a one last go at the NBA championship.
That was his desire, to win a ring. In a perfect world he would have won the ring in Utah and retired in Utah. That wasn’t an option.Dwight Manley, NY Times
Malone was seen as the final piece of the Lakers’ reinvented championship puzzle. The final ingredient to get the purple and gold back to the top after an early exit in the ’03 Western Conference Semifinals. But unfortunately, he ended up being none of that.
The Lakers’ superteam experiment prolonged their postseason run past their previous exit point, but it wasn’t enough for them to go all the way. The Detroit Pistons proved to be too much for Shaq and Kobe led NBA machinery, as their five-game cross-conference playoff series ended up being the last one an iconic duo played together. It also ended up being Karl Malone’s farewell to NBA basketball, making his one last go at the NBA title a no go. But if you think he went out as a desperate observer fishing for rings, you better think again. Malone’s stint with the Lakers was much more than that.
It started in their season opener when Malone racked up a near triple-double of 15/10/9 in a 109-93 win against the Mavericks. 16 games into the regular season, he put up 10/11/10 in a win against the Spurs, becoming the first 40-year-old to record a triple-double. Over the first 23 games, he averaged 14.5 PPG, 9.9 RPG, and 4.4 APG on .509 shooting and was one of the key factors the 18-5 Lakers were near the top of the Western Conference. But unfortunately, that’s when Mr. Longevity suffered an MCL tear that sidelined him for three months, causing him to miss 39 games of the regular season. The Lakers went 22-17 during the stretch, failing to make up for an all-around presence Malone embodied.
Mailman returned to full play against the Timberwolves on March 13. From then on, the Lakers rattled off 11 consecutive wins to finish the year with 56 wins and No. 3 seed in the West. Malone closed out the season averaging 13.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, and 3.9 APG and the team’s second-best +/- of +5.6, behind only Shaquille O’Neal. He was ready for one final push for an NBA title.
In the first round against the Houston Rockets, Malone averaged 18 PPG, 10.4 RPB, 3.2 APG, and 1.8 SPG. He put up a monster 30-point performance in Game 4, as the Lakers closed out the series in five. During the conference semifinals, Malone’s defense proved vital for the Lakers’ comeback after being down 2-0. He held a former two-time MVP, Tim Duncan, to 17.5 points and 38% shooting over the final four games, enabling a 25-year-old Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers to four consecutive wins and a ticket to the WCF.
There, Malone did much of the same. He averaged 12 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists against ’04 MVP and defensive stopper Kevin Garnett and was the big reason why the Lakers were able to close out the series in six and make it to the NBA Finals. But unfortunately, he couldn’t do the same in their cross-conference matchup against the Pistons. Malone re-aggravated his knee injury in Game 3 and ended up being a non-factor in the final stage of the Lakers’ superteam experiment
Thus Mailman ended his 19-year run as one of the best players to never win an NBA championship. Had it not been for the injury, his Hall of Fame career could’ve had an entirely different outcome. That’s how good a 40-year-old Karl Malone was. He was much more than an observer, and that in and of itself is impressive enough.