The combination of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal was one of the most dominating duos in league history. With the help of the two Hall of Famers, the Los Angeles Lakers rattled off the last three-peat in league history. The 2003-2004 Lakers were the last season that featured both players but it also featured a slew of other standout players in the late stages of their career.
The great Karl Malone and Gary Payton were nearing the end of their careers and joined the Lakers to title chase. In the end, both players came up short after years of battling Michael Jordan during the 90s. In their primes, this Laker's bunch could have pulled off their own three-peat during the 90s.
The 2021 Nets have a combined 41 All-Star appearances on this team and 36 All-NBA selections. Some of these players are in the midst of their primes, while others are also on the backend of their stellar careers. It begs the question: Who would win this series if everyone was in their prime? That's what we are about to find out.
2004 Lakers: Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal
2021 Nets: Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge
Point Guard: Gary Payton vs. Kyrie Irving
Primetime Gary Payton could make any big-time scorer look like a rookie. Payton is tied for the most All-Defensive First-Team selections with nine in his career, which was all consecutive. He is potentially the greatest defensive point guard in league history. Not to mention, as he was playing lockdown defense, he was producing on the offensive end. From 1994 to 2001, Payton averaged over 20 points and seven assists in all but one season. His best year came in 1999, where he averaged 24.2 points and 8.9 assists.
As for Irving, he is considered the greatest dribbler of all time. His scoring the last two seasons with the Nets has drastically improved, averaging 27.4 points last season and 28.2 points this year. That also includes a run of at least 5.8 assists in four of the last five seasons. However, with Payton's ability to lockdown players, he would have the upper hand here. Payton's offensive production nearly matches Irving, so the two would cancel each other out there. Defense wins championships, and Payton's abilities would prove that in this matchup.
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. James Harden
This would be a matchup that all of us would have loved to see. We all know about Bryant's offensive abilities where he was a two-time MVP and two-time NBA scoring champion. He holds the record for second-most points scored in a game (81). In a basket-for-basket situation late in the game, it's impossible to tell who would get the last laugh.
James Harden is playing like he is going to earn his second MVP of his career this year. Harden has already won an MVP once and holds the last three NBA scoring titles, including a season where he averaged 36.1 points per game. This year, Harden is averaging 26.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and leads the league with 11.2 assists per game. The only stat we can point to that breaks this tie is Bryant's nine All-Defensive First-Team selections, a conversation that Harden has never been involved in. Offensively, this would be a shootout, but there's reason to believe that Bryant would be able to slow Harden down at times.
Small Forward: Rick Fox vs. Kevin Durant
This is perhaps one of the greatest mismatches ever in NBA Finals history, theoretically speaking of course. No disrespect to Rick Fox, a three-time NBA champion with the Lakers from 2000-2002, but he never made an All-Star team. His prime years were two seasons in Boston from 1995 to 1996 and then one season with the Lakers in 1997. His best season came in 1996 when he averaged 15.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.
Imagine how easy it would be for Durant in this series. For starters, Durant would not have to play as intense defense, which would allow his offensive game to rise. There is a valid argument that Durant remains in his prime but let's talk about his numbers before the Achilles injury. Durant averaged over 25.0 points per game for 10 straight seasons, including a 30.1 average in 2009 and a 32.0 in 2013. We should also point out that Durant's career rebounding numbers (7.1) are vastly superior to Fox (3.8). Durant would eat Fox alive on the court.
Power Forward: Karl Malone vs. Blake Griffin
Malone came to the Lakers for one season after an 18-year career with the Utah Jazz. In all but one season Malone averaged more than 20 points, so let's break down his entire Jazz career. Malone averaged 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.8 blocks. He ranks second in all-time scoring, won two MVP trophies, made the All-Star team 14 times, made the All-Defensive First-Team three times, and is an 11-time recipient of the All-NBA First-Team.
Say what you want about Griffin's recent play, but he was no slouch before coming to Detroit. Griffin is a six-time All-Star and a five-time All-NBA selection; he has zero landings on the First-Team. Griffin is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, while Malone is 6-foot-9 and 259 players. With the same body type, Malone proved that he is and was the better player.
Center: Shaquille O'Neal vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
Ever since Shaq left the league, he has detailed that he did not always put in the work and was sometimes lazy. Even with that, he was a three-time NBA Finals MVP (2000-2002), which coincidently was when the Lakers three-peated. Shaq averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds in four seasons with the Orlando Magic before that, proving that he is one of the most dominant centers of all time. Then, he averaged 27.0 points and 11.8 rebounds in eight seasons with the Lakers.
At 7-foot-1, 325 pounds, Shaq would dominate Aldridge, 6-foot-11, and 250 pounds. The muscle that Shaq had during his prime helped him land his MVP trophies because he was just flat out stronger than the rest. Aldridge is a seven-time All-Star, but like Griffin, never landed on the First-Team. It seems like it is pretty clear who the better player is in this situation.
If this was a series For the first two games of this series, the Lakers would dominate the Nets by 20-point blowout wins to take a 2-0 series lead. For starters, the defensive lockdown of Irving and Harden by Payton and Bryant would be exceptional. In Game 1, Irving is held to 10 points on 2-of-13 shooting, while Harden is 8-of-22 from the field. Neither can get the offensive in motion with both players on them.
Bryant, playing more of a defensive role, still scores at least 18 points in each of the wins but knows that the mismatches are inside with Malone and Shaq. Durant scores 38 points in Game 1 and 42 points in Game 2 but the Lakers walk away with 120-98 and 115-90 wins.
In Game 3, the Nets make adjustments with Aldridge coming out of the post and being used primarily as a passer and screener. The pick and pop opportunities allow Irving and Harden to get back to scoring close to 25 points each. Durant scores 30 points for the third straight game but the Lakers take advantage of their soft defense to win in the half-court.
After two straight double-doubles of 20 points and 10 rebounds, Shaq erupts with a triple-double of 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Anytime Griffin tries to get a shot off, Shaq is there to reject his attempt. Malone finally scores a 20 point game and the 75 points in the paint stifle the Nets and bring up a win or go home situation.
The Nets can take one game from the Lakers, who were feeling fatigued from their Game 3 win. Aldridge secures his first double-double of the series, while Harden and Durant team up for 70 points alone. In the end, the Lakers handle the Nets in Game 5 with a 136-110 victory. Bryant scores his first 30 point game of the series and teams up with his primetime teammate to outmuscle the Nets. Shaq secures a 20-point, 20-rebound game and wins NBA Finals MVP.
In the end, defense prevails as the Lakers are just too big and too strong. Having players that can play exceptional defense, but also land an NBA scoring title makes the team two hard to beat on both sides of the floor. The 2004 Lakers take the title and add to the long list of legendary Lakers teams.
2004 Los Angeles Lakers vs. 2021 Brooklyn Nets 4-1