The Lakers finished the 2003-04 season with the second-best record in the Western Conference behind the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they were still favorited going into the postseason because they still had their superstar tandem of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, plus two All-Stars in Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Granted, Payton and Malone weren’t exactly in the primes of their careers, but they were playoff-tested and highly-skilled.
As it would turn out, the Lakers did have enough to get past the Timberwolves, but they were upset by the Pistons in the Finals, who also upset the two teams ahead of them in the standings, the New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers, in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Eastern Conference Finals, respectively. The Lakers, Nets and Pacers had six All-Stars between them — the Pistons had one: Ben Wallace.
In the months that followed their Finals loss, the Lakers made serious organizational changes. Not only did they trade O’Neal, who led them to three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, but they traded a few of their key role players, including Payton. Had things gone differently for the Lakers in 2004, those changes may have not been made, according to Payton.
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
There are a lot of big “what ifs?” in NBA history, and with these comments and Shaq’s comments from a week ago, the “what if the Lakers never lost the 2004 NBA Finals?” conversation has re-entered the public conscious. Would the Lakers have actually kept Shaq and Kobe together if they won their fourth title in five years in 2004?
From the way Payton’s making it sound, that was dependent on whether or not another championship would have settled the differences Bryant and O’Neal had at the time. Bryant was set to become a free agent in the summer of 2004, so if O’Neal and the Lakers didn’t convince him he was as important to the team as O’Neal was (or more important), he could have left.
Ultimately, the Lakers decided to show their loyalty to Bryant by trading O’Neal and rebuilding around him, but it’s not hard to imagine that Bryant and O’Neal would have made amends after winning together again knowing how much they both valued winning.