The Los Angeles Lakers have been fairly terrible for the last few seasons, but in the early 2000s, they were far and away the best team in the NBA. Yes, with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, the Lakers won three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002 and almost won another in 2004.
But they didn’t. They lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games.
The series wasn’t all that close, but it might have been closer had Karl Malone not injured his knee in Game 2. Had Malone stayed healthy and helped the Lakers to their fourth title in five years, there’s a good chance the team wouldn’t have broken up.
That’s what O’Neal thinks, anyway.
Is that fair? Or is that revisionist history?
“I think we all have our take on why it all dismantled,” three-time NBA champion Rick Fox said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “From Shaq’s point of view, that was a huge, huge link in the chain that rattled . . . what we hoped was going to be a dynasty when we added Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Didn’t fall that way. I don’t think (O’Neal is) incorrect in feeling that had a huge hand in it. If (Malone) would have been healthy, we probably would have definitely given the Detroit Pistons more of a run for their money in that series.”
The Lakers averaged just 81.8 points per game in that Finals, including 78.3 in Games 3 through 5 – all losses. After that, the dynasty ended. Jackson did not come back as head coach – though he did return in 2005 – and O’Neal signed with Miami.
“I don’t think you break that team up if we’d won a championship that year,” said Fox, now an analyst for NBA-TV and Turner Sports. “You just don’t. Maybe you get rid of some of the peripheral guys, but you definitely keep Shaq and Kobe together and probably Karl and Gary for another year. And unfortunately (with) that not happening, everything splintered.”
Thus, the notion that the Lakers broke up because O’Neal and Bryant simply couldn’t co-exist might not be true. Or, at the very least, it might be incomplete.
“I don’t personally think (their relationship is why the team broke up),” Fox said. “I would have gotten rid of everyone and kept Shaq and Kobe. I would have. I really would have. You could not have told me that Shaq and Kobe couldn’t have played another six, seven years together. But look, they both went their separate ways and Shaq won a championship a couple years later and Kobe went on to go to three Finals and win two more. So it’s not as if they couldn’t succeed without each other. I just think they could have done more together.”
Fox, meanwhile, retired after the 2004 season. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were rookies that year.
“(I realized) it was time for me to get out of the game,” Fox said. “But more Carmelo Anthony than LeBron because I got a good heavy dose of Carmelo for one game. I was recovering from an injury that season, so I didn’t start playing until January. And very quickly to me it was evident that there was a new wave of athlete coming our way down the pipe, and I didn’t physically and talent-wise at the age of 35 match up with those young bucks at that time. So I was quite content to bow out.”