20 years later: Looking back on the Lakers championship that almost was

Back during the 2003-2004 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers came three games short of another NBA title on a team that, on paper, looked like it should’ve gone the distance
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (C) is s
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (C) is s / HECTOR MATA/GettyImages

Looking back two decades after the fact, another Los Angeles Lakers championship seemed inevitable. 

The Lakers had already won three championships in the previous four seasons – in 2000 against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers, in 2001 against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, and in 2002 against Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, ultimately completing the first NBA three-peat since the Bulls’ second in 1998.

And while 2003 saw an off year for the Lakers with a semifinals exit against a dynasty-bound San Antonio Spurs team, the following 2003-04 season still looked promising. 

The Lakers had a 25 year-old Kobe Bryant, who had led the purple and gold in scoring during the regular season with 24.0 points per game, as well as Shaquille O’Neal, still in his prime and averaging 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Not to mention the supporting cast of that 2003-04 Lakers team. 

The Lakers had accumulated veterans like Gary Payton, Horace Grant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Byron Russell and even Karl Malone. There were even two future NBA head coaches on that roster: Ime Udoka and Luke Walton. People forget just how stacked that team actually was. 

However, it just wasn’t in the cards. The second coming of the Bad Boy Pistons had arrived, and not even the star-studded Lakers could prevent them from taking over. 

With Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and a young Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons were ultimately too much for the Lakers. Detroit took them down in just five games when all was said and done, winning the series 4-1. 

Unfortunately, this playoff run virtually ended the early-aughts Lakers as we knew them. 

Yes, the Lakers would go on to win in 2009 and 2010, but the storied franchise that could have won its fourth championship in five years—something that has seldom been accomplished in the NBA’s history–was done for the time being. O’Neal fled to the Miami Heat, Malone retired, Phil Jackson was gone and it would never be the same. 

Bryant later took the blame for the Lakers’ loss when he spoke to O’Neal in a one-on-one interview in 2018

“I didn’t get us prepared to run our automatics,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get [Payton], I didn’t get [Malone], I didn’t get the new guys on board enough to be able to execute properly. And we got to Detroit and it forced us to play our offense 94 feet, and we weren’t ready. And we couldn’t do it and everything just capitulated from there.” 

If they had won that 2004 chip, would O'Neal have stayed with the Lakers? Would the dynamic Black Mamba and Big Diesel duo have won more rings together? It’s hard not to hypothesize about how different NBA history would be today had that 2004 Lakers team knocked off the surging Pistons.

Kobe would have as many rings as Michael Jordan. Shaq would have a fifth ring to his credit, only adding to his already cemented “most dominant center of all time” legacy.

That championship would’ve even had some serious career implications for Karl Malone, who when looking back at that roster, seemed out of place in a Lakers jersey knowing he was such a staple for the Utah Jazz for so many years. 

Malone, who sits third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, would have finally won that ever-so-sought-after championship, virtually putting to bed any “Malone never won a ring” chatter. 

Horace Grant didn’t need the ring. He had already won four of them by 2004 and was a member of the first Bulls three-peat from 1991 to 1993. But would this have separated him a little more from merely being considered another teammate of Michael Jordan’s? A ring without Jordan and the Bulls surely would’ve helped his all-time status.  

Even for the Lakers franchise, just that one ring alone would have the organization first all-time in NBA championships with 18. And if Shaq and Kobe had stayed together, who knows how many more championships would have ensued.  

Now granted, the Celtics are currently one victory away from adding an 18th Larry O’Brien Trophy to their case, as they're in the middle of a series against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2024 NBA Finals. But still, that 2004 ring might have done a lot for the Celtics versus Lakers franchise debate that still permeates the NBA world today.

All in all, that 2003-04 Lakers team will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history. Those days of three-peats and near four-peats seem to be long gone, and any emblem of a Lakers dynasty is nonexistent at this point with the team’s current roster turnover. 

“That still sits with me,” Bryant added about the 2004 NBA Finals loss. “That sits with me, cause we should’ve won it.”