They started the season 16-2. Yet another superteam ready to take the league by storm. In 2004 the Lakers got two impressive additions to their team – Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Kobe and Shaq together were already too much to handle for almost everyone, and then they added two Hall of Famers. The only thing that could stop them was injuries.
As we know, that’s what happened. Kobe missed 17 games, Shaq missed 15, and Malone 40. Payton, at the age of 35, managed to play 82 games playing 34.5 minutes per game. Load management wasn’t a thing back then. In addition to all the stars, Rick Fox played only 38 games and Horace Grant 55. But the most significant “injury” happened to their team spirit.
Kobe and Shaq were barely speaking. Before the season started, their relationship had a complete breakdown following Kobe’s arrest and throwing Shaq under the bus with a comment about paying people off. Payton and Malone hoped to go to sunny LA and enjoy their basketball Zenit together, but it didn’t turn out that way.
“Karl called me and said, ‘You know I want to go to L.A., I want to get sun. I want to get out of this coldness, I want to get out of all this crap. Let’s enjoy ourselves at the end of our careers and do what we do. We could sign here for two years and then re-up and then end our career here, and it will be fun.’”Gary Payton, All The Smoke
They walked into a lot of LA drama, and fun sunny LA wasn’t so enjoyable anymore. Payton explained they were talking about teaming up for several years during All-Star games (tampering!!), and then Magic started calling them about it (TAMPERING!!). Malone really liked the idea, so he took the significant discount to make it work, and signed for $1.5 million. Payton got $4.9 million, and they went to LA to get sun and a ring. They got some sun.
Malone and Payton would probably have Tampering PD on them today, but it was never uncommon for older superstars to take a discount and win a ring, especially if they didn’t have one by the end of their career. Players would team up to enjoy their final few years on a strong team, and provide leadership and experience. What’s different about today is, they did it at 37 and 40 – guys today do it in their prime.
When all was said and done, Payton managed to get one with Miami, while Malone is on that infamous list of the best that never won a ring. Still, true basketball fans understand how great and consistent Malone was despite the lack of jewelry.