Kobe Bryant’s illustrious career was etched into immortally on Monday, when he became the first player in Lakers’ history to have two of his playing number retired. The number 8 and the number 24 were raised to the ceiling at half time of the game against Golden State, joining Wilt Chamberlain’s number 13, Magic Johnson’s number 32, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 33, and Shaquille O’Neal’s 34 on the roof of Staples Center.
Kobe enjoyed an illustrious career at the Lakers, for whom he played all 1346 games, scored all 33,643 points, and for whom he spent all his 20 years in the NBA. Despite enjoying a highly successful career there though, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, and on numerous occasions he was perilously close to being traded to another team.
Detroit Pistons: 99/00
In just his second season as a regular starter for the Lakers, Bryant averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Part way through the season though, and things weren’t looking so rosy for him. In an exhibition game before the season proper, Kobe broke his wrist, and ended up sidelined for a number of weeks.
His Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal, got off to a great start even in his absence, winning 10 of their first 11 games. When Bryant was ready to return, there was an understandable reluctance to change a winning formula. Kobe was asked if he would come off the bench to allow the starters to continue their rich vein of form.
Turns out, though, that 20-year-old Kobe already had a well established Mamba Mentality. Coming off the bench was not an option, and he made that clear. He returned to the starting lineup, the Lakers continued on their winning ways, and all seemed well.
But Kobe was only averaging 19 points, and wasn’t completely satisfied with the way things were going. Reportedly, he requested a trade. The Pistons had made an offer to trade Grant Hill to the Lakers in exchange for Bryant, and the Los Angeles juggernaut had to consider it in the wake of Kobe’s request.
Grant Hill was a couple of years older than Kobe, had shown a proven ability to play some serious basketball at the highest level, and was in the midst of a season which would be the most fruitful of his career, ending with an average of 25.8 points per game.
The Lakers, though, opted not to grant Kobe or the Pistons wish. According to coach Phil Jackson, it was a relatively easy decision, but it was a prophetic one nonetheless. At the time, Hill appeared to be headed for a long and illustrious career, but in the playoffs of that very same season he was struck down by an ankle injury which would follow him for the rest of his career.
Not only did it prove to be a good move by Jackson and the Lakers, Kobe too benefitted from the trade that almost was. That season, and the ensuing two, Los Angeles won the championship, giving Kobe the first three of his five career rings.
Detroit PIstons: 2007
By this point in his career, Kobe Bryant was a well-established star of the NBA. The year prior, he had averaged an enormous 35.4 points per game. Despite this, his Lakers weren’t doing so great.
In 2005-06, they won 45 games, enough to earn them a playoff spot but not much more. They lost 3-4 in the first round of the playoffs to the Suns.
2006-07 had tracked along a similar line. For the season, Kobe averaged 31.6 points, but shot almost five less shots per game than the year prior. Los Angeles was similarly mediocre, ultimately winning 42 games, once again finishing seventh, once again playing the Suns in the first round of the playoffs, and once again losing.
By the end of the season, the proud franchise had decided that things weren’t going the way they wanted them to. They made a commitment to trade their star player in Bryant to Detroit in exchange for a number of good players and draft picks.
Kobe, though, had a contract with a no-trade clause, giving him all the power. The Lakers were hoping he would waive it, allowing them to complete the trade and send him to the Motor City. Bryant was certainly open to the idea of a trade at this point, but unfortunately for the Lakers, Detroit was not one of the teams he had identified as a potential landing spot. As a result, he said no, and the trade was finished before it was even started.
In the end, the lack of a deal worked out for all involved, at least within Los Angeles. Pau Gasol was added to the team as a worthy sidekick, Kobe made some necessary adjustments to his game, gradually decreasing his number of shots down to a more acceptable 20 per game, and Pau and the Lakers worked their way back into familiar territory as a contender.
They won 57 games the following season, finishing first in the Western Conference and making their way through to the NBA Finals, where they were ultimately beaten by the Celtics. Kobe was a catalyst for the improvement, winning his first and only regular season MVP award.
The next season, Kobe averaged around 27 points, the Lakers won 65 games, and won the Championship. The season after, they did it again, giving Kobe the last of his five rings. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but it seems his decision to stay in Los Angeles was a pretty savvy business move.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2007
With all the mediocrity surrounding the Lakers during this period, Kobe had indicated at the very least a willingness to be traded. Los Angeles were looking to honor his request, and along the way they gave Cleveland a call. Who did they want in return? A 22-year-old LeBron James.
After just four seasons in the league, it was clear that LeBron was something special. Already he was one of the best players in the game, and in the season in question he had averaged 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and six assists a night. The year prior was even better, as he put up 31.4 points per game.
Perhaps the Lakers were being ambitious, but they had every right to be considering the quality of player they would be giving up. Kobe was their star, the face of the franchise and the basis of hope for success-hungry Lakers fans. A couple of good players would not be good enough in return for him, and so they needed to go for the very best.
As good as Kobe was, the Cavs weren’t interested in the trade. LeBron was six years younger, and looked like being every bit as good, if not better. Though they weren’t interested in a Bryant/James swap, Cleveland was certainly interested in acquiring the star from Los Angeles.
They offered up a variety of alternatives to James. Reportedly, this involved just about every other player on their roster as they desperately tried to fabricate a situation where LeBron and Kobe would play together. In 2006/07, LeBron had carried the Cavs all the way to the NBA Finals, despite a relative lack of support around him. The addition of Kobe, even in the absence of any other decent players, would be a major boost.
For the Lakers though, it was LeBron or nobody. And thus what would have been the biggest trade in NBA history was swept under the rug, and the two players stayed put.
Kobe later confirmed that even had the Cavs agreed to the trade, he wouldn’t have. He had named just three teams as acceptable trade destinations to Lakers executives, and they were Chicago, San Antonio and Phoenix. Cleveland wasn’t on his radar, and given the no-trade clause in his contract, he had the power to decline any trade which he didn’t like the look of.
Maybe it was an unlikely outcome, but the fact that it was even discussed makes it an enthralling part of NBA history. Two of the biggest names of their era, and indeed all time, being directly swapped for one another is a mouth-wateringly interesting prospect.
LeBron would go on to win two of the next three season MVP awards, while Kobe, as we know, added a couple more rings to his collection. Each have since forged highly successful careers, but what the outcome would have been had this trade gone through is anyone’s guess.
Ultimately, none of these trades came to pass, and now, at the end of Kobe’s career, that seems like a blessing. He ended his time as an NBA player boasting one of the most loyal playing careers in history, and helped to bring five championships to one of the biggest franchises in the country. As his jerseys were retired on Monday, it seemed impossible to even imagine him playing for another team. Forever, Kobe will remain a valued piece of the Los Angeles Lakers history.