Los Angeles Lakers: Comparisons to the 2003-04 Team Are Not a Bad Thing

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IOctober 2, 2012

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 15: (L-R) Shaquille O'Neal #34, Gary Payton #20 and Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on from the bench in the fourth quarter of game five of the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons on June 15, 2004 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons won game 5, 100-87 to clinch the NBA Championship.  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 Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

According to Yahoo! Sports, during the Los Angeles Lakers media day star guard Kobe Bryant called the current version of his team the most talented that he has ever played on.

This immediately reminded me of another gathering of superstars that united for one season under the purple-and-gold banner.

The 2003-04 Lakers, featuring Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant, was the only Lakers team that I have ever seen that fielded a starting five that included four future Hall of Famers—until now.

The 2012-13 edition of the Lakers with an older Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol can certainly match the 2003-04 version when it comes to star power, but as critics of the NBA's newest dream team like to point out that's not necessarily a good thing.

Shaq's last team in Los Angeles was ultimately considered a failure after they were demolished by a younger, hungrier Detroit Pistons team in the 2004 NBA Finals.

But can you really consider it a failure if you are one of the league's final two teams standing?

Everyone expected that year's team to compete for an NBA championship and that's exactly what they did. The Lakers just came up short in the Finals.

Many people point to the star-crossed 2004 runner-ups as a blueprint to predicting how this year's Laker team might perform, and fans can only hope they get the same type of effort and focus that Malone and Payton provided.

Sure, they were both NBA senior citizens by that point in their respective careers, but they still played a major role in leading the Lakers to the Finals, they just ran out of gas and suffered injuries when they got there. But they still got there.

The 2012-13 Lakers definitely have the talent to be one of the league's finalists this season, and they aren't consumed by the underlying issues and fundamental differences that characterized that earlier Laker team.

For instance Payton was one of the greatest defensive guards of all time (and a more than capable scorer) but assists were only a byproduct of his overall game. Payton only averaged 6.7 assists throughout his career and he only averaged 5.5 during his one season stint in L.A.

Nash may not have Payton's defensive abilities, but he is just as good offensively and has crafted a career on making his teammates better.

Payton never averaged double-digit assists in a season, and during 17 years as a, pro he managed to shoot 50 percent from the field just twice. Nash has averaged double-digits assists seven times and is shooting almost 50 percent from the field for his career.

None of that means Nash is a better player than Payton, but it does mean his skill set is better suited to complement the players surrounding him.

Nash is a distributor by nature. By 2003-04, Payton no longer possessed the physical skills to change a game with his defense when his shot wasn't falling, but Nash can still control an offense without scoring a point.

It would be disrespectful to say that Malone was only a shadow of the dominant player he was in Utah, so I won't. But I will say that Malone in 2004 doesn't compare with a 26-year-old Howard even if he is returning from injury.

By 2004 most of Malone's offensive game consisted of the short-range jumper he perfected with the Jazz, and the Mailman was never really known for his defensive prowess.

But Howard is.

Howard has the same innate ability as Nash to dominate a game without ever scoring a point, but Lakers fans should expect plenty of offense from Howard anyway, and most of his points will probably be of the high-percentage variety due to Nash.

It's safe to say that Nash and Howard should be more effective for the Lakers than Malone and Payton were—and these new Lakers won't have the distraction of a divided locker room.

Back in 2004, Bryant and O'Neal were embroiled in a feud that would eventually rip the Lakers apart, and yet with all that drama as a backdrop the Lakers still managed to reach the NBA Finals. That's not bad for a team of mismatched superstars thrown together for one season.

But the 2012-13 version is capable of so much more.

The 2003-04 Lakers were a last-gasp effort to regain some of the glory that had faded after their three-peat, but this team does not seem hastily put together or awkward.

Bryant called the Lakers his team during a media-day interview, and his new teammates made sure to let everyone know the feeling was mutual.

It's hard to imagine any of the 2004 Lakers rallying around Bryant if he had made such a declaration then, and Kobe probably wouldn't have rallied behind O'Neal if Shaq had announced he was one in charge.

Already these new Lakers are projecting a sense of camaraderie that was absent from the 2004 team, and that may have been the main ingredient that was missing from the earlier team's championship equation.

The 2012-13 Lakers are 82 regular season games and a postseason away from matching the feat of their 2004 counterparts, but they certainly have the potential to reach the same stage, and they can go further if their camaraderie translates into on-court chemistry.