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Karl Malone and Gary Payton had their shots to win an NBA championship in the late 1990s. But neither Malone (as a star for the Utah Jazz) nor Payton (as a star for the Seattle Supersonics) were able to overcome Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in The Finals. The summer of 2004 brought about unrestricted free agency for the future Hall of Famers and the duo decided to give a title run one last try.
Malone and Payton signed free-agent deals with the Los Angeles Lakers, joining forces with the formidable duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. As these veterans were teaming up in L.A., a crop of future stars were making their NBA debut.
LeBron James — the eventual Rookie of the Year — landed in Cleveland and turned the Cavs’ fortunes around immediately. Though they missed the playoffs, the Cavs had an 18-win improvement. Dwyane Wade debuted in Miami and led the Heat back to the playoffs while Chris Bosh began his career as a member of the Toronto Raptors. Out in Denver, Carmelo Anthony took the Nuggets from 17 wins to 43 and helped them make the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Though the Lakers took the headlines most of the season with their “Big Four” (and the drama that followed a deteriorating relationship between O’Neal and Bryant), the West belonged to a different squad. The Minnesota Timberwolves rose to the top bolstered by eventual MVP Kevin Garnett and veteran acquisitions Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.
In the East, the Indiana Pacers were head and shoulders better than the rest during the season. But come playoff time, the Detroit Pistons emerged and squashed Indiana’s hopes of a Finals appearance. Powered by a defense led by Ben Wallace and the scoring of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, the Pistons breezed by the Bucks in the first round. They needed seven games to top New Jersey in the semifinals and six games to eliminate the Pacers in the conference finals to reach The Finals for the first time since 1990.
Minnesota finally advanced in the playoffs after seven straight series defeats in the first round and knocked off Sacramento in a thrilling seven-game series in the West semis. The West finals pitted the Wolves against the Lakers, but an injury to Cassell spoiled Minnesota’s hopes of reaching The Finals as L.A. won the series in six to set up a showdown with Detroit.
However, the Lakers’ star quartet was no match for the Pistons, who used composure and teamwork to outlast Los Angeles in five games for the championship. Billups, known as “Mr. Big Shot” for always scoring clutch baskets, took home Finals MVP honors. Malone retired after his loss in The Finals while Payton hung on for a couple more seasons and won his long-sought ring at last in 2006 with the Miami Heat.
Eastern Conference first round
Detroit defeated Milwaukee (4-1)
Indiana defeated Boston (4-0)
Miami defeated New Orleans (4-3)
New Jersey defeated New York (4-0)
Western Conference first round
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Houston (4-1)
Minnesota defeated Denver (4-1)
Sacramento defeated Dallas (4-1)
San Antonio defeated Memphis (4-0)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Detroit defeated New Jersey (4-3)
Indiana defeated Miami (4-2)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated San Antonio (4-2)
Minnesota defeated Sacramento (4-3)
Eastern Conference finals
Detroit defeated Indiana (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Minnesota (4-2)
Detroit defeated Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
Points — Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic (28.0)
Assists — Jason Kidd, New Jersey Nets (9.2)
Rebounds — Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves (13.9)
Steals — Baron Davis, New Orleans Hornets (2.4)
Blocks — Theo Ratliff, Atlanta Hawks/Portland Trail Blazers (3.6)
FG% — Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers (58.4)
FT% — Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento Kings (92.7)
3PT% — Anthony Peeler, Sacramento Kings (48.2)
Most Valuable Player — Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves
Rookie of the Year — LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Defensive Player of the Year — Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers
Most Improved Player — Zach Randolph, Portland Trail Blazers
Sixth Man of the Year — Antawn Jamison, Dallas Mavericks
Coach of the Year — Hubie Brown, Memphis Grizzlies
All-Star Game MVP — Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers
Finals MVP — Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons