Ever since the Lakers acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, sportswriters have been comparing the 2013 Lakers to the 2004 Lakers, which added Gary Payton and Karl Malone in an attempt to return to championship form. Many, including Mark Cuban, have cited the 2004 Lakers as a cautionary tale. Mark Cuban told the Sporting News:
“The Lakers have done this before,” Cuban said. “Remember Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Kobe and Shaq were all together, and it didn’t work. It takes great chemistry, like coach (Rick Carlisle) alluded to, it takes guys wanting to be there — I don’t know if all their guys want to be there — it’s going to be interesting.”
The implication is that the 2004 Lakers didn’t work because of chemistry. Indeed, the team had terrible chemistry. Shaq and Kobe actively hated each other. Gary Payton clashed with the media. Phil Jackson was busy taking notes for a tell-all book that would call Kobe “uncoachable”. It was left to Karl Malone (!) to be the voice of reason.
In the end, the Lakers lost in the NBA Finals, as the “team-first” Pistons beat the Lakers in a victory against superteams.
Except that story is almost totally false. The 2004 Lakers failed, but for a simple reason that had nothing to do with chemistry. (Editor’s note: Spoiler Alert! It rhymes with Karl Smalone’s Health.)
The 2003 Lakers, hampered by Shaq’s preseason toe surgery, produced a mere 48.0 wins, down from 59.6 wins in their 2002 championship season. Except Shaq was pretty much the same player in 2003 and 2002. He played 67 games in both seasons at roughly the same level of production.
Nor can the 2003 Lakers’ lack of success be blamed on Kobe—he also improved, both in WP48 and total wins produced. Instead, the win total dropped because of the supporting cast—all of the Lakers championship stalwarts (Horry, Fox, Shaw, Fisher, even Devean George) played worse in 2003.
So the 2004 Lakers tried to rectify the dropoff by bringing in future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The problem was Malone was a below average power forward and Payton was only slightly above average in 2003. Given their advanced ages, one would expect them to decline further in 2004. Instead, both responded with major bounceback seasons—Malone at a 0.176 WP48, and Payton at 0.154 WP48.
But the 2004 Lakers only produced 49.5 wins. In fact, we should note as a team they performed above their numbers and won 56 games. That sounds like good chemistry. But let’s dig into the “train wreck” of the Lakers’ season.
Shaq and Kobe got worse.
In the Lakers 2000-2002 threepeat they generated roughly 175 regular season wins. Kobe and Shaq were responsible for 75 of them. In essence the Kobe and Shaq duo was almost half of the Lakers.
In 2004 Shaq showed the first signs of rust. He had played 67 games in 2002 and 2003 but both those years was more productive. In 2004 his production dropped and this cost the Lakers a win and a half. Kobe had his most productive per-minute season. However, he only played 65 games and this dropped the Lakers another three and half wins. Thus the lack of improvement from 2003 to 2004 can pretty much rest entirely with Shaq and Kobe.
Malone vs. Medvedenko aint pretty
Meanwhile, Karl Malone missed half the season after Scott Williams rolled into his knee. That meant that his replacement, the immortal Stanislav Medvedenko, actually played more minutes than Malone that season (1442 to 1373). And while Medvedenko had the second-best WP48 of his career, Medvedenko sucked in general. His 2004 WP48 of -0.005 meant that he cost the Lakers wins. Had Malone been able to play those minutes instead, and maintained his pace, he would have produced another 5 wins, putting the Lakers up at around 60 wins.
Indeed, the Lakers’ playoff performance suggests that they were closer to a 60-win team than a 49-win team. They managed to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, who produced 60.6 wins in the regular season, and faced off against a Pistons team that had produced “only” 55.8 wins. In other words, a team that was 5 wins worse than the team they had just defeated.
So why did the Pistons beat the Lakers? Was it bad chemistry? Nope, it was Karl Malone’s injury. Malone was re-injured in the Finals, leaving the PF position in the hands of a combination of Medvedenko, and Luke Walton playing out of position. Replacing a 10 win player with two much inferior players in the finals was costly.
In other words, Wins Produced explains both the Lakers’ regular season performance — Karl played better and Shaq and Kobe played worse. It also explains the loss to the Pistons in the Finals — Karl got injured.
The Lakers’ chemistry, or lack thereof, had nothing to do with it. Karl Malone’s injury (and the use of Slava Medvedenko as his primary backup) hampered the Lakers during the regular season, and killed them against the Pistons. But that doesn’t mean that Lakers fans have nothing to worry about in 2013. Karl Malone was a legendary iron man before his season with the Lakers—he had never had a major injury. Sound familiar?
The biggest risk for the Lakers in 2013 isn’t chemistry, it’s health. If the Lakers remain healthy, and Kobe bounces back from a terrible 2012, the Lakers will be a contender. If any of their three stars (Howard, Nash, Gasol) goes down, or if Kobe continues to suck, they’ll be a disappointment.
During 2001, the Lakers produced fewer wins than both the Spurs and Kings, and in 2002, the Lakers produced fewer wins than the Kings. Yet they won anyways. Part of this may be luck, but I think part of this is that the consistent injuries to Shaq depressed the Laker’s regular season Wins Produced numbers. One could argue that the Lakers, despite the poor regular season numbers, generally had the better team during the playoffs.
Like all Laker fans, I’m never satisfied. The Lakers should have won in 2003 as well—people forget that Rasho Nesterovic flagrantly fouled Kobe during the T-wolves series, separating Kobe’s shoulder. I remain convinced that if Kobe had been healthy, they could have beaten the Spurs in the WCF.
Editor Dre’s note: So running down the Lakers “bad luck” it seems that team health as opposed to team chemistry may play a bigger role. At least, that’s my takeaway…
Editor DJ’s note: I would just like to emphasize that the Pistons in 2003-04 were the better team. So that also explains why the Lakers failed to win the title in 2004.