July 16, 2003: After a second-round playoff loss to the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers bolster their roster by signing future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton on cheap deals. The veteran star are willing to take less for a better shot at finally adding a championship to their resumes.
The Lakers began the 2002-03 season with Shaquille O'Neal on the bench due to off-season foot surgery. With the big man easing his way back into the lineup, the team was 11-19, the worst start in over 10 years. They clawed their way out of the hole to finish the season 50-32, good for fifth seed in the Western Conference.
After knocking out MVP candidate Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, the Lakers lost to San Antonio in six games.
With Malone and Payton, expectations soared. With "The Big Four," the Lakers started drawing comparisons to the legendary 1927 New York Yankees.
When the team got off to an impressive 18-3 start, it seemed that all of the hype was worth it. But things weren't going quite as well in the locker room. With the media circus surrounding Bryant's sexual assault charges, things between the franchises two biggest stars were rocky at best. In addition Malone, who had been a model of durability throughout his career, missed half the season due to nagging injuries. Payton complained about his lack of playing time, and how much his disliked playing for Phil Jackson's triangle offense.
But the team was still favored in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons. In one of the most stunning defeats in recent memory, Chauncey Billups and the Pistons were able to defeat the Lakers in only five games.
Shaq was then traded to the Miami Heat. Malone retired. Jackson decided to take a coaching hiatus. The team, centered around Bryant, went into a transition phase.