After the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2003 Western Conference semis in six games, the team attempted to make history in the summer and signed then-future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
At the time, the move was bold and a first of its kind in the history of the NBA. However, it was deemed necessary by many as the Lakers were desperate to bring the championship back to LA.
The odd one out
As it turned out, Malone and Payton weren’t the same multi-time All-Stars they were when they played for the Lakers. Nevertheless, under the tutelage of the brilliant Phil Jackson and the undeniably dominant duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers managed to make it to the NBA Finals.
The Lakers faithful were elated with what they were witnessing – four future Hall of Famers representing the “Purple and Gold” were four games away from cementing their names in the history books of the storied franchise. Unfortunately, they failed.
Malone retired after that season, while Payton decided to join another legendary team in Boston Celtics. Since then, whenever we look back at it, many were quick to conclude it would never work out as Malone and Payton were already washed. However, Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck recently spilled the beans and offered a different theory. In it, the culprit was Payton.
“Malone was the guy holding Shaq and Kobe and holding the team together and keeping Shaq and Kobe from beating the heck out of each other early that season,” Beck told HoopsHype. “Gary Payton didn’t want to play in the Triangle. He hated the Triangle, but he signed there to play for Phil Jackson, and he should’ve known. If there was one player who didn’t fit, it was Payton. He didn’t fit the Triangle and rebelled against it in a way.”
Still better than LeBron’s Lakers
Last season, the Lakers made a move resembling that 2004 summer. The team already had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but after a disappointing season off a championship run, they brought in Russell Westbrook and aging multi-time All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard.
Unlike the 2004 Lakers, the LeBron-led 2021-22 squad was an outright disaster, winning only 33 games that season. Payton, whom Beck said was the reason for the ’04 Lakers’ disconnect, had a simple take on the subject.
“I don’t think this team that the [2021-22] Lakers got are nothing like us,” Payton reckoned. “I think we were in our prime, a lot of us was way more in our prime than they were.”
Whether Payton was right or wrong, the bottom line is that the Lakers realized firsthand, not once but twice, that stacking the squad with veteran All-Stars wasn’t the best move to make.