Welcome To The Circus: The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers
The End of the Championship Run
Throughout the series with the Spurs, L.A. would struggle defensively against point guard Tony Parker and power forward Tim Duncan.
Following the Game Six loss in San Antonio, Kobe Bryant would leave the court in tears, stating that he never wanted to experience this again.
Two Stars Join in the Championship Chase
Derek Fisher had been abused defensively in the postseason by opposing point guards, as had Robert Horry against power forwards.
This led Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson to one conclusion: the Lakers needed better defense from those positions if they were going to get back to the Finals.
Two aging players who had played their entire careers with the same teams were free agents in the summer of 2003. Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, and Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics. Both were among the greatest players of all time, and surefire future Hall of Famers.
With each taking less money in order to join Jackson, O'Neal, and Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone signed contracts with the Los Angeles Lakers on July 16, 2003.
They each stated that their intentions were no longer to be great individual players, but instead to finish their careers with a title.
It appeared that L.A. had fixed its point guard-power forward problem in an emphatic manner.
A Star Falls From Grace
Just two days after the signings of Payton and Malone, the Laker championship hopes would be dealt a massive blow. Arguably the game's greatest player, Kobe Bryant would be charged with sexual assault on July 18, 2003.
With the criminal case taking place in Colorado, it looked as though Kobe Bryant would have to take the season off in order to pursue the maintenance of his freedom. However, Bryant would surprise the Laker organization by announcing his intention to continue playing basketball around his court schedule.
With a somewhat limited Bryant in place, Los Angeles entered the regular season as the obvious favorites to win the NBA title.
As training camp began for the Lakers, all eyes were on Kobe Bryant and his legal issues.
Following Bryant's absence at one training camp practice, reporters would question Shaquille O'Neal about how not having the whole team at practice was hurting the Lakers.
O'Neal repeatedly responded by saying that the whole team was there, implying that Bryant was not a part of the team.
Upon Bryant's return to camp, O'Neal would make statements about how Kobe should look to be a playmaker instead of a scorer while his knee healed.
Bryant would fire back, stating that he didn't need Shaq's advice on how to play the guard position.
O'Neal responded by stating that he could say whatever he wanted, because the Lakers were his team.
Responding to Shaq's statements, Kobe would take his biggest shot at the Laker center. Bryant noted that Shaq came to training camp out of shape and fat, and that O'Neal blamed others for losses and took credit for victories.
He also stated that O'Neal had threatened not to put forth maximum effort if he were not passed the ball more often.
Following this scathing response by Bryant, the two Laker stars would discontinue their public battle (although it was later discovered that the feud was very much alive behind closed doors).
Despite this discontinuance, the media had found a story, and would constantly note any perceived slights by one star to the other.
In spite of the incredible preseason issues of such a talented team, the Los Angeles Lakers would roll through the early part of the season with a 20-5 record. It appeared that despite the problems presented by the Shaq-Kobe feud and Bryant's trial, the Lakers would dominate the NBA as expected.
A major blow would be struck to the Lakers' fast start with the loss of Karl Malone. Malone, who had sacrificed playing time and shots in an effort to mesh with the team, suffered a major knee injury that would force him to miss 39 games.
With Malone out, and Payton failing to gel with O'Neal and Bryant, the Lakers would stumble into the All-Star break with a 31-19 record.
Following the break, L.A. would regain its footing, going 25-7 over the remainder of the season, winning the Pacific Division on a Kobe Bryant buzzer-beater on the last day of the regular season.
The Bizarre Regular Season
Despite finishing with a 56-26 record, the Lakers were not without their unusual moments in the regular season.
Following a loss to the Houston Rockets, O'Neal would twice cuss in a live post-game interview, leading to a suspension.
Payton's agent would complain constantly to the Laker coaching staff about the triangle offense, believing that it hindered his client.
Bryant would suffer a bizarre hand injury, stating that he cut himself while cleaning a garage.
Bryant was also involved in one of the most unusual storylines in all of sports. Forced to miss several games while attending court in Colorado, Bryant was sometimes able to make it back to the Lakers in time to take the basketball court.
This trend of moving from one court to another in the same day would be picked up on by the media. The most unusual aspect of this arrangement would be Kobe's performances on these particular days.
Many of Bryant's greatest individual performances of the season would come on days where he barely made it to the arena in time for the game.
He would score 35 against the Bulls on a court day after arriving in Chicago just minutes before the tip.
On another, he would hit a game-winning shot over Yao Ming. On yet another, he would arrive at the arena at the end of the first quarter, and proceeded to hit the game-winner to bury the Nuggets.
After escaping the regular season with a strong record in spite of injuries to Malone and Bryant, the Lakers would gear up for another run to the Finals.
It would start against the Rockets, where Los Angeles would win in five games despite struggling throughout. O'Neal's dominance of Ming would be key, as would Bryant's high-scoring, including a 31-point effort on a court day.
In the second round, the Lakers would face their nemesis from a year earlier: the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs had eliminated the Lakers in six games the season before, and L.A. was determined to get revenge despite lacking homecourt advantage.
The Laker hopes of revenge seemed to take a major blow early, as the Spurs won both games on their homecourt to take a 2-0 series lead.
However, the Lakers would answer back with two consecutive wins of their own, highlighted by a Kobe Bryant 42-point Game Four after spending the day entering a plea of not guilty in Colorado.
Game Five would add to the long line of amazing Laker moments in 2003-2004. Following Kobe Bryant's shot to take the lead with 11 seconds to play, Tim Duncan would make a miracle shot with 0.4 seconds to play to give San Antonio the lead.
What would follow would be one of the most miraculous plays in NBA history.
Catching and firing off of the inbounds, Derek Fisher's famous shot would give L.A. a 3-2 series lead. Back in Los Angeles for Game Six, the Lakers would finish off the rival Spurs, and head back to the Western Conference Finals to face the Minnesota Timberwolves and league MVP Kevin Garnett.
After having little difficulty dispatching of the Timberwolves in six games, the Los Angeles Lakers, heavy favorites throughout the entire season, would return to the NBA Finals after a one year hiatus.
Facing the seemingly overwhelmed Detroit Pistons, the L.A. Lakers appeared ready to sweep through the Finals without difficulty. The Pistons, however, had different ideas.
Winning Game One, Detroit would snatch the valuable homecourt advantage away from L.A. and, in the process, create more than a few doubts in the minds of basketball fans.
Game Two would belong to Kobe Bryant, who's shot with 2.1 seconds to play tied the game, and who's 33 points led all scorers. The Laker victory would be its only one of the Finals.
Games Three, Four and Five would belong to the Pistons. Bryant and O'Neal would play some of their worst career NBA Finals games. Payton and an injured Malone would provide next-to-nothing offensively and defensively.
Despite Eagle, Colorado, Karl Malone's injuries, the Shaq-Kobe feud, and Phil Jackson's looming retirement, the Lakers had returned to the NBA Finals. However, the weight of a the circus caught up to them, and they were crushed in the now-infamous "five game sweep."
The Los Angeles Lakers entered the offseason with some major decisions to make. They chose to overhaul the team.
First, Payton and Rick Fox would be traded to the Boston Celtics for several role players.
Karl Malone would retire, in spite of the Lakers' attempts to retain him.
Derek Fisher would sign a free agent contract with the Golden State Warriors. But the largest changes would come with two Laker mainstays.
Three days after the NBA Finals concluded, Jackson announced his retirement from basketball. This came after a five year run in Los Angeles that included four Finals appearances and three championships.
As a free agent, Bryant threatened to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers if O'Neal remained a Laker.
Forced to choose between the two superstars, Los Angeles decided to keep the young guard over the aging center. Shaq would be traded in a blockbuster deal with the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant.
The dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers left only Kobe Bryant among the four future Hall of Fame players of the previous season. And so ended one of the most fascinating seasons by any team, in any sport, in any era.
For all their obvious faults, there is no doubt that the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers were a great team, and a fitting swan song for the first Laker dynasty of the new millennium.
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