Shaquille O'Neal swears he'd be 'a Laker to this day' but for Karl Malone's 2004 knee injury

Shaquille O'Neal swears he'd be 'a Laker to this day' but for Karl Malone's 2004 knee injury

Despite the troubling (to say the absolute least) rape allegations against Kobe Bryant, despite Shaquille O’Neal’s stated demands for a contract extension, Shaq’s clear weight issues, and the obvious and simmering tension between the two players, the Los Angeles Lakers came out of the 2003-04 regular season going great guns. Coach Phil Jackson would later write that he didn’t think his team’s early good fortune was sustainable, but the Lakers were running at 20-5 when forward Karl Malone hurt his left knee in a collision with Phoenix’s Scott Williams.

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Malone wouldn’t return for another 11 weeks, and upon his re-insertion into the Lakers starting lineup the team peeled off a 14-4 record to end the season; a 34-9 record with Malone in the starting lineup. The future Hall of Famer played terrific basketball in the postseason as well, scoring 30 points and 13 rebounds in one close-out game against Houston, before yet another knee injury curtailed his output and before eventually sidelining him for the Lakers’ final game of the season – a Finals-clinching loss to Detroit.

Significantly injured for the first time in his lengthy career, Karl retired following knee surgery that summer. The Lakers were broken up soon after with Kobe Bryant flirting with Chicago and the hated Clippers as a free agent before re-signing, O’Neal being dealt to Miami, Derek Fisher signing with Golden State, and Gary Payton shipped to Boston. And O’Neal, some 11 years later, thinks a couple of twists of fate could have kept him in Los Angeles. From a talk with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher:

If I had one wish, I wish we could have gotten those guys a couple years earlier. Karl was older. GP was older. Wish we could have gotten them towards the end of their prime. And you know, I think we would have won that series. And then, if Karl doesn’t get hurt, I’d probably still be a Laker to this day.

O’Neal went on to win a championship in Miami prior to working with the Suns, Cavaliers, and Celtics in late-career attempts at securing a fifth ring. Bryant remains a Laker to this day, but he’s suffered season-ending injuries in three consecutive years and has played just 41 games since tearing his Achilles in April 2013.

Shaq is Shaq, I probably don’t need to remind you, and he tends to blur some things as the years move along. That 2003-04 season was absolutely toxic for all involved, and it is hard see even a Lakers championship keeping that crew together.

Phil Jackson swore in his book that he was set to walk away from the Lakers win or lose, which is a tough guy thing to say in retrospect, but it’s also worth recalling that when Detroit took the first game of the 2004 NBA Finals it was still thought of as a major upset despite Detroit’s late-season dominance. A Lakers win in Game 2 on the shoulders of a game-winner from Bryant seemed to set the world in order soon after.

Or, as Lakers veteran Rick Fox said in Bucher’s piece, “the false sense that everything was going to be OK.”

It wasn’t. The Lakers had no depth, Kobe could not find the basket and O’Neal was winded after a season spent playing terribly out of shape. Detroit romped to three straight wins at home, and in the end the Lakers had just about given up.

And, as you’d expect, Shaq’s recollections are a little hazy.

In the piece, the gulf between O’Neal and late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss is referenced quite often, as Shaq started out the season with a preseason game that saw him screaming at Buss from the court about a contract extension after every Shaq-like move. Remember, this is in the fall of 2003, and O’Neal’s contract was technically supposed to run through 2006 (with 2005-06 serving as a player option). Shaq wasn’t going to become a free agent for nearly two more calendar years at the earliest, and he told Bucher that he wasn’t going to accept less money than his grandfathered-in deal from the previous collective bargaining agreement, and his statements are left at that.

Except that he eventually did.

It wasn’t the wrong move, but Shaq turned down the final season of that deal after being dealt to the Heat, one that would have paid him close to $30 million in order to sign a five-year, $100 million contract in 2005. This means he did end up taking a one-year dip in salary of over $7.4 million between 2005 and 2006, and nearly a $10 million pay cut in order to jump into the security of being paid $20 million yearly until 2009-10.

It was the smarter financial move, especially with O’Neal’s age and injury woes, but Shaq is trying to have his cake and eat it too in this instance as he rocks back and forth in his chair.

Would he have stayed a Laker if Buss had ponied up for a similar deal? That’s hard to say, especially after all of Shaq’s “I won’t take less than what I’m making”-posturing. It’s easier to do that in a new town.

Would Kobe have stayed a Laker if Shaq hadn’t requested a trade? Hell no, he said as much in this piece and he said as much in 2004. Those two had been going at it both in practice and in the press since 1999, when both O’Neal and Kobe bristled at each other’s playing habits and their opposing views on the new stipulations of the collective bargaining agreement – one that made it so Bryant couldn’t sign a deal similar to O’Neal’s contract until the two were drawn apart.

Would Karl Malone’s healthy knee and a potential 2004 Lakers championship have kept Shaq in Los Angeles for seven more years? That’s a stretch, man. That’s a stretch.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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