- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the offseason to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, many compared the superstar quartet to the 2003-04 Lakers, who added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to a team that already had Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
One player who does not like the comparison is Payton.
“I don’t see any comparisons,” Payton said. “First of all, we had a coach in Phil Jackson who was a coach who could deal with all our situations. We had the players around us that could do their jobs and knew what their roles were. Phil Jackson had brought those people in. [Mike] D’Antoni is a coach that came in during the season and he didn’t know what was happening, he didn’t know what kind of players he had, he didn’t know what was going on.”
Much like this year’s Lakers, the 2003-04 Lakers also dealt with their fair share of injuries. In fact, Payton, Derek Fisher and Devean George were the only players on that team who played all 82 games. O’Neal missed multiple games as he quibbled with management about a contract extension; Bryant missed several as he dealt with a sexual assault trial in Colorado; and Malone, who had only missed 10 games his entire career, missed 40 games with a knee injury.
“We got hurt; a lot of us got hurt that season,” Payton said. “Kobe was going through what he was going through, and if Karl Malone hadn’t gotten hurt in the 24th game, we would have been a great basketball team. Shaq was going through his stuff with management and he really didn’t want to be here. We still fought through it the whole year, we were up and down, but we still went to the NBA Finals where we just ran into a good Detroit team that was more together and had a focus to be together and beat a team that was really in turmoil.”
Payton, who is in Los Angeles for the launch of Thuzio, a website that connects fans with athletes, believes Jackson would have been a better fit for this Lakers team than D’Antoni and said Jackson’s Triangle offense wouldn’t have hampered Nash as much as people think; it may not be the best offense for a ball-dominant point guard, but Jackson would have found a way to make it work.
“The Triangle wasn’t a good offense for me but I chose to come here, knowing what kind of offense it was,” Payton said. “Phil was the type of person where he would adjust it if it didn’t work for somebody; he would let them do a little bit more. He let Kobe do a lot of things that he let Michael Jordan do. When we came in there, we had to adjust to the Triangle, which was hard, and we needed to do different stuff. It is hard for a point guard who is used to dominating the ball a lot to go into that system, but I still think with his experience and how many times he has won championships, he could have made everyone fit to his system and then given Steve Nash a little rein to do what he wanted to.”
As talented as the Lakers are, Payton isn’t sure if the current roster fits D’Antoni’s style and isn't sure they will be able to turn it around in time to make a playoff run.
“You have to have the right core of players. You have to have the right players for the type of style that he wants to play right now,” Payton said.
“When they started off, a lot of guys had to fit in. When you bring in a lot of new guys like that, they have to learn to fit in. You brought Dwight Howard from a team where he was the man and now he’s on a team where Kobe is the man. Steve Nash has never been a guy who hasn’t had the ball in his hands all the time to direct traffic and do things. Kobe is that man on the Lakers. It’s a lot of adjusting and it just hasn’t adjusted right yet.”
Payton believes it will take the Lakers a season to adjust to playing with each other and to D’Antoni’s style but that it could eventually work. Payton and the 2003-04 Lakers never got a second chance after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. After that season, Jackson left, O’Neal was traded to Miami, Payton was traded to Boston and Malone retired. Payton hopes these Lakers get the second chance his Lakers never got.
“You have to go through a year like this and hope they keep the team together and let them come back next year,” Payton said. “Don’t do what they did to us and break the team up and never give us a chance to come back.”