The Pistons humiliated the Lakers in June of 2004, triggering the end of the Shaquille O'Neal era in Los Angeles. Had the Lakers managed to prevail back then, the past six years would have unfolded very differently, and not likely for the better.
Lakerdom is luxuriating in a new Golden Age. Three straight trips to the NBA Finals and victories in the last two, including one over their loathsome rivals the Boston Celtics, have the Lakers standing astride the hoops world. Kobe Bryant is still going strong, Pau Gasol is likely to remain at his peak for several more years, and in Andrew Bynum the team has a skilled (if injury-prone) 22-year-old behemoth to serve as a potential long-term cornerstone. Already Vegas has tabbed the Lakers as favorites to win the title again next season. Aside from an uncertain coaching situation, all systems are go.
This latter-day paradise has been six years in the making. It grew out of the smoldering wreckage left behind when the last Laker Golden Age, the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal dynasty, was blown apart in the 2004 Finals by the Detroit Pistons. That loss set in motion the trade of Shaq to the Miami Heat and a subsequent series of events that seemed awfully unfortunate at the time: the firing of Phil Jackson, a 34-win campaign in 2005 and, most nauseating of all, a trade for Kwame Brown. When in 2007, Kobe demanded a trade and the team entered serious negotiations to ship him to Chicago in exchange for a variety pack of B-list talents, a semi-permanent midnight seemed to be falling on the Lakers.
And yet, here we are only three years later, in pretty much the exact opposite position. Every apparently crushing consequence of that 2004 loss, it turns out, had not only a silver lining, but in some cases a platinum, diamond-encrusted one. The Shaq trade brought back Lamar Odom and saved the Lakers from overpaying for Shaq's corpulent decline years. Those 34 wins in 2005 delivered the 10th pick in the draft, which Mitch Kupchak used to select Bynum, and a renewed appreciation for Phil's talents among team ownership. Kwame's expiring contract became currency to spend in the Gasol deal. Perhaps we should be sending a fruit basket to the Pistons, or perhaps a cookie bouquet, for doing us all a big favor?
To answer that question, let's imagine how recent Laker history might've been different had they managed to win that fateful Finals series six years back.
Granted, the plausibility of that premise is slim. It's not like the Lakers came all that close to defeating the Pistons back then. Detroit needed only five games to dispose of the purple and gold and for the series outscored the Lakers by 45 points. The Pistons were a lot closer to sweeping than L.A. was to collecting the fourth banner of the Kobe-Shaq era.
But just play along with me. Had Karl Malone not injured his knee in Game 2 of the Finals, it's not ridiculous to think the Lakers could've pulled it off. That injury limited Malone to 39 minutes total in the last three games of the series and forced Phil to depend on the epically mediocre Slava Medvedenko instead. A healthy Mailman, even at 40 years old, would've been a huge upgrade on Slava. Just about any lower case-m mailman would be an upgrade on Slava.
With Malone owning the glass and anchoring the D, let's say the Lakers take Game Four in Detroit to recapture home-court advantage and get the series back to Staples. Energized by the home crowd, Kobe and Shaq turn back the clock to 2001 and level the Pistons in Game 6 and 7. Lakers win the title, w00t! In classic L.A. tradition, the city celebrates riotously, and riots celebratorily. Here's how, I suspect, events would have rippled outward from there.
1. The Kobe-Shaq-Phil regime would have held together, but only just.
Cracks appeared in this power structure long before the Pistons came along. The cold war between Kobe and Shaq had been in progress since early that decade and, with Shaq increasingly out of shape and Kobe playing under the cloud of his Colorado rape accusation, the conflict was reaching a critical stage. The relationship between Shaq and the organization was deteriorating as well, as Shaq publicly lobbied for a contract extension despite two seasons left on his deal. Phil just looked wearied by the spectacle of it all. These are valid reasons to think that even had they managed to pull it together long enough to beat the Pistons, these guys wouldn't have it in them to look at each other another day more.
But fresh banners have a way of lightening the mood. There are very few examples of an NBA champion willfully disbanding. The Jordan-Pippen Bulls did it after MJ's sixth title in 1998, but that's the exception that proves the rule. Far more often that not, a team that wins in June hangs together for another run, and then another, until the league catches up with them.
The first order of business would be for Jerry Buss to broker an armistice between Kobe and Shaq. Here's guessing that Dr. Buss could have persuaded Shaq to play out his existing contract with the Lakers (really, what choice did he have?) while assuring Kobe that when Shaq's deal expired in 2006, the latter would be sent on his way into free agency and the team would be Kobe's. His two superstars now tolerating each other's existence once again, Phil would return as coach to make a run at surpassing Red Auerbach with an 11th ring.
2. But that 11th ring would've remained out of reach.
What 2004 made clear is that the supporting cast around Kobe and Shaq had fallen off painfully. During the three-peat years, the likes of Glen Rice, Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry had served as productive role players, but by 2004 they had all aged either out of the league or down to replacement level, and the new crop of bench guys - think Devean George, Kareem Rush and the inimitable Slava -- embodied a big step-down in quality. The team's drafts from 1997 through 2002 had failed to produce a significant contributor. The signings of Malone and Gary Payton reflected a desperate attempt to tourniquet a roster that was bleeding out talent.
Had the Shaq-Kobe-Phil core remained intact, this steady downgrade in the supporting cast, as well as Shaq's ballooning weight and spiritless work ethic, would have submarined any further championship runs. With that long-desired ring on his meaty finger, Malone would've retired in 2004. Payton quickly wore out his welcome with the team and would not have been brought back. At the outset of the 2004-05 season, Kobe would confront the futile task of dragging a physically compromised Shaq and a roster otherwise stocked with mediocrity into a brutal Western Conference fire fight. As great as Kobe is and was, his talents would not have been enough against the Steve Nash Suns, the Tim Duncan Spurs and the Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks teams that would eventually dominate the middle years of the decade.
3. In the summer of 2006, things start going downhill.
So let's say two seasons go by without the Lakers winning another title. They make decent playoff runs, sure, but they fall in the conference finals both years. Tired of Shaq's dubious attention to conditioning, the team lets him walk. They get some cap space, but because there was no trade with Miami, there's no Odom or Caron Butler. But there's a solution, yes? Just use that cap space to sign free agent help for Kobe, and bam, you've reloaded on the fly.
One problem: the free agent class of 2006 was bad. Like, sickeningly bad. The most sought-after "prizes" that offseason were Sam Cassell, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic. Any of those guys jump out at you as championship-quality second bananas? They all have their charms, but... no. Championship-quality fourth bananas, maybe. At the time, though, Kobe would have been desperate for help and likely would have pressured the Laker front office to add bodies, so let's say they give multi-year deals to Wallace and a second-tier small forward. Al Harrington, anyone?
At this point, the downward slide truly begins. Kobe's in his prime, but he's surrounded by lesser talents, and the payroll is capped out. And remember, in our alternate universe the Lakers didn't bottom out in 2005, so there's no Andrew Bynum about to emerge. Instead, the Lakers would've drafted in the mid-20s that year, ending up with something in the Jason Maxiell mold. DO NOT WANT.
4. In 2007 and 2008, the wins stop coming.
In the face of surging Western Conference competitors, a stagnant, aging Lakers team would have fallen into the bottom half of the playoff bracket. Early postseason departures would poison the atmosphere around the squad and send Kobe into a simmering rage. Phil Jackson, in the interests of his health and sanity, would step down at some point. The Lakers would find themselves a franchise adrift, with one of the sport's all-time greats at the height of his powers but no means of improving the pieces around him.
Again, there was never a Caron Butler in this world. (Well, there was, but he never played for the Lakers.) That means there's never a Kwame Brown, which means no big expiring contract with which to pull Pau Gasol out of the hat. Pau ends up playing out his prime years elsewhere. Eventually, Mount Kobe blows.
5. In 2008, the Lakers accede to Kobe's trade demands. The bottom falls out.
In the real world, the trade demands hit in 2007. In our imagined counter-history, they're delayed by only a year. Without Bynum or Pau, there's no way for the team to appease Kobe other than by agreeing to trade him, which they do for pennies on the dollar. The 2009 and 2010 seasons see a gradual sink into lotterydom and wholesale rebuilding.
Naturally, none of the foregoing would necessarily have played out in that fashion, but then again, none of it's all that implausible. Had the Lakers taken the title in 2004, it could have sustained one of the great eras in the team's history, but only for a short time, and at massive long-term cost. Aside from Kobe, the foundation of the team was already rotting out and needed to be re-poured. The Pistons did us the favor of laying all this bare.