Gary Payton Ridiculously Thinks Super Teams Began in 2003

Gary Payton had an outstanding and lengthy NBA career. The only point guard ever named Defensive Player of the Year, he was a nine-time All-Defensive and All-NBA selection and managed to win a ring with the 2006 Miami Heat late in his career. But it appears he has a strange sense of NBA history, at least when it comes to the origin of the so-called superteams, of which the Los Angeles Lakers have had many.

The Glove played from 1991–2007, so the early part of his career was mostly devoid of the superteams. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six titles in the 1990s, but it’s hard to make a superteam case for a squad that included starters like Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, and Luc Longley. But Payton’s take on when superteams became part of the NBA landscape defies logic.

Gary Payton might have been on a more super superteam in Seattle

Over 13 seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Gary Payton played on three 60-win teams. The best bunch was the 1995–96 team that went 64–18 before losing to Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Finals.

Besides Payton, that team featured All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf and a lights-out shooter in Hersey Hawkins. The SuperSonics may not have been a superteam, but they had star power. Before Payton’s time, the Boston Celtics, Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers teams of the 1980s featured three Hall of Famers in their primes at various times.

In the old days before free agency, teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Lakers, and New York Knicks of the early 1970s could make the same claim. So too could the Celtics and 76ers (at least for a few years) of the 1960s.  

That context makes what Payton claimed recently even more questionable.

Payton claims he played on the first superteam

Gary Payton teamed up with Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in 2003-04, but that wasn't the first superteam
Gary Payton (third from L) teamed up with Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in 2003-04, but that wasn’t the first superteam. | Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Given that Gary Payton was born in 1968, he would have been a literal diaper-dandy in the late stages of the Celtics dynasty. The George Mikan Minneapolis Lakers of the 1950s are out of the question.

But he said during an appearance on the Nothing Personal with David Samson podcast that he played for the original superteam. In his opinion, that team was the 2003–04 Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant already had three titles when Payton and ancient Karl Malone joined the party, but hey, this is Payton’s story, and he’s sticking to it.

“That was an interesting year. When me and Karl signed with the Lakers, I was coming for Shaq, and Karl was coming for me. So we were coming together. That was probably the first superteam with the four of us. We were looking forward to that. Then you know what happened with Kobe. He got into a situation. Then you know what happened with Shaq. He got into a situation with Dr. (Jerry) Buss. So everything was kind of not meant to be. It was up in the atmosphere, and God probably didn’t want it to happen.”

Yes, in Gary Payton’s world, the first superteam came together in 2003. Forget Willis Reed. Just say no to Bill Russell. Larry Bird? Magic Johnson? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Mere posers in the land of The Glove.

On the other hand, there is a certain logic to Payton’s assertion. Never one to lack in confidence, it could just be that he can’t imagine the existence of a superteam that didn’t include him. That seems on-brand for Payton.

What went wrong for Gary Payton and the super-Lakers?

Gary Payton is correct when stating the 2003–04 season didn’t go as planned for the Lakers. Bryant had his legal issue in Colorado. O’Neal and Buss, the team’s owner, were at odds over O’Neal’s contract request.

Malone sustained his career’s first and only significant injury, missing half the season with a torn MCL the Lakers’ medical staff misdiagnosed as a sprain.

Despite the drama, injuries, and setbacks, LA did get back to the NBA Finals. They eliminated the Houston Rockets in five games in the first round, took out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in six games to reach the conference finals, and knocked out the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the Lakers were ambushed in the finals by the Detroit Pistons, who held LA to just 81.8 points per game in a five-game blowout.

Superteamer Gary Payton averaged 4.2 points per game on 32.1% shooting in the series. Ultimately, it is said the winners write history. So maybe we should ask Ben Wallace who he thinks the original superteam was.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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