2013 Lakers Will Be Nothing Like 2004 Karl Malone-Gary Payton Squad

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2012

LOS ANGELES - MAY 31:  Gary Payton #20 and Karl Malone #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2004 NBA Playoffs on May 31, 2004 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Yes, this season's Los Angeles Lakers will feature a ring chaser or two, but it won't be the first time this club's supporting cast was built on the hopes of aging veterans desperate for a final shot at glory.

Just as Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined up with the Lakers in 2003-04, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison had similar hopes when they found their ways on to the roster this summer. You can't help but wonder if this experiment will yield similar results.

The short-term results may not be all that different, but that's where the similarities stop.

Nine years ago, the Lakers relied on a 35-year-old Payton and 40-year-old Malone to serve as the principal supporting cast for Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Though the two veterans had respectable seasons (averaging 14.6 and 13.2 points respectively), Los Angeles fell to the the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals in just five games.

Payton moved on to stints with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat and Malone retired.

Shaquille O'Neal was then traded to the Miami Heat, and Kobe Bryant's team entered a brutal bridge to its next chapter (one that eventually resulted in two more championships).

There are any number of reasons L.A. had no luck in that 2004 run. One of the most important reasons was that the Detroit Pistons were playing the best defense the NBA had seen since the San Antonio Spurs won their first two championships in 1999 and 2003.

The other reason, though, is that the Lakers depended too heavily on their past-prime star acquisitions, expecting them to play the role of third and fourth options at the point guard and power forward positions.

It didn't help that Bryant spent the season with some well-known legal issues hanging over his head.

Given the minimal time spent building on-court chemistry, the fact this team even made it to the NBA Finals was an accomplishment in its own right. The rest of the supporting cast included Stanislav Medvedenko, Devean George and Derek Fisher, so the team's depth was more reminiscent of the 2011-12 Lakers than next season's roster.

Of course, it's entirely possible that the Lakers will come up short in the NBA Finals this season, just as they did in 2004.

The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, when healthy, could pose a stiff challenge to these Lakers.

And that's assuming these Lakers even make it out of the West with contenders like the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs still lurking.

But, the latest Laker iteration should prove to be far more formidable than the 2004 edition, and there's little chance they'll implode next summer.

Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are still in their primes, whereas Shaq was beginning to decline in 2004, and Karl Malone had long since passed his prime. Additionally, Jamison will only be required to provide a spark off the bench—he won't be needed to do the things Malone was needed to do.

Meanwhile, Steve Nash won't be going anywhere after this season unless he suffers some kind of catastrophic injury or his back finally begins to break down.

The 38-year-old has a three-year deal with the Lakers, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if he plays it out.

On the floor, there will also be important differences about this club. Nash creates chemistry almost instantly, and he's still one of the league's very best when it comes to making those around him exponentially better.

Whereas Payton had become a spot-up shooter and post-up point guard in his later years, Nash remains the kind of guy who could instantly make new Lakers like Howard and Jamison feel like old friends.

Moreover, you shouldn't expect to see the looming tensions that began to derail the Lakers a decade ago.

Dwight Howard will have his chance to make this team his own, but for now, we all know that it belongs to Kobe Bryant. Unless everything that could go wrong does indeed go wrong, this unit should enter the postseason feeling nothing but good vibes.

Could everything go wrong?


The 33-year-old Bryant could re-discover the injury bug after a season of logging heavy minutes. Nash's luck could run out. The 36-year-old Jamison could break down. Pau Gasol could decide he doesn't like playing for a team that's seemingly always on the verge of trading him.

Dwight Howard might discover he doesn't have the psyche to play under pressure with a contender, and leave the Los Angeles in the offseason.

Things could certainly go wrong.

Chances are, however, that they won't.