The Charlotte Hornets were presented with a golden opportunity to completely change the franchise’s fate back in the 1996 NBA Draft. At the time, they were already a relevant and up-and-coming team, which occasionally made postseason trips back in the 1990’s era. Little did they know that the 13th selection of Kobe Bryant ended up as one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the planet when all is said and done.
Choosing to keep Kobe Bryant at the helm could’ve possibly gotten them over the hump and resulted in a handful of Finals appearances for the franchise. It all started back in the 1992-93 season when the team went to their first playoff trip in franchise history with a 44-38 record to land in the fifth spot of the Eastern Conference by the end of the regular season. They eventually faced the Boston Celtics in a first-round series and won on a 3-1 series outcome followed by a 4-1 loss against the New York Knicks in the following round.
Unfortunately, they failed to make the playoffs in the 1993-94 season when shooting guard Dell Curry snagged the Sixth Man of the Year award. The Hornets returned to the postseason in the 1994-95 season but lost to the powerhouse Chicago Bulls on a 3-1 first-round series defeat.
After an early exit in the playoffs, the Hornets knew that the gaping hole in the center position was one that they had to fix come to the offseason after previously trading away star big man Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat. They also acquired power forward Anthony Mason from the Knicks, but it still didn’t solve the void left by Mourning.
A day before the 1996 NBA Draft, the Hornets agreed to trade their No. 13 pick to the Los Angeles Lakers. During the draft, the Lakers told the Hornets whom to select minutes before the pick was made, resulting in the selection of high school prospect Kobe Bryant. They would eventually trade his draft rights away to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for center Vlade Divac.
Unbeknownst to many, the franchise did not instantly feel the consequences of the Bryant trade as they were able to top the league in gate attendance during the 1996-97 season. The team also managed to sneak in the playoff picture via the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 54-28 regular-season record.
However, the Hornets failed to capitalize on the opportunity and succumbed to the Knicks in a first-round sweep. Their campaign during that season ended with Glen Rice being named as the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player while former general manager Bob Bass was given the second Executive of the Year award of his career.
The team returned to the postseason in the following year with a seemingly weaker Eastern Conference competition. They rolled past the Atlanta Hawks in a 3-1 series win during the first-round proceedings but ultimately bowed to the mighty Bulls squad on a 4-1 defeat in the following round.
If the Hornets managed to work something out with the rookie Bryant back in 1996, they could’ve paired him with forward Glen Rice who was having the best statistical season of his career en route to a second-team All-NBA selection during the time.
Three years later, he could’ve also formed a backcourt tandem with rookie point guard Baron Davis who was selected with the third overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. If Bryant had stayed in Charlotte, the Hornets faithful could have possibly forgiven former owner George Shinn for his questionable decisions.
He was remembered by many as the figure who abruptly traded away Mourning and another fan favorite in forward Larry Johnson a year later. Seeing the trajectory that Bryant’s career had in Los Angeles, it was certainly one that could have boosted Shinn’s image had he decided to keep the then 18-year-old on his team.
On the other end of America, the Philadelphia native in Bryant came off the bench and played behind tenured veterans like Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel as a rookie for the Lakers. He tallied 7.6 points, 1.3 assists, and 1.9 rebounds through 15.5 minutes played for a team that consistently made the playoffs.
He eventually doubled his production as he settled in a bigger role during his sophomore campaign. Bryant averaged norms of 15.4 points, 2.5 assists, and 3.1 rebounds on 26 minutes of action on the floor.
With the more shallow rotation of the Hornets, Bryant could’ve eased himself better into the starting role and became a major contributor for the team as a rookie out of high school. His impact on the team could’ve also powered the Hornets to deeper and more consistent playoff appearances in the late 1990’s.
However, it is still hard to say whether Bryant could’ve successfully won a championship with the Hornets if he stayed with the franchise for the entirety of his career. The Lakers became successful with him at the helm because the front office were able to surround him with role players who complemented his style of play, which ultimately resulted to five championship titles. Given Charlotte’s small market team, it seems unlikely that they have the capability to attract notable free agents to come and help out Kobe Bryant.
Lastly, keeping the swingman in the Hornets franchise could’ve reunited him to his long-time idol in legend Michael Jordan given that the former chose to stay in Charlotte for his entire career. The Chicago Bulls great went on to become the full controlling owner of his hometown team back in 2010 while Bryant was still in his prime facing off against rival Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Five championship rings, two Finals MVPs, 18 All-Star appearances, and an illustrious 20-year career later, one can only wonder and think of the what-ifs that could’ve happened if he stayed with the team that drafted him.