“What if” scenarios are fun to discuss especially when the greatest players are involved. Back in November of 2007, an intriguing trade discussion unfolded between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls with superstar Kobe Bryant right smack in the middle.
The 2006-07 Lakers resembled nothing like the dominant superpower of the early 2000’s when Shaquille O’Neal had patrolled the lane as the biggest and most imposing figure the league had ever seen since Wilt Chamberlain. When the Shaq and Kobe could not get along any longer, the Lakers brass had to decide which of their superstars they wanted to keep.
They chose Kobe. So Shaq had to go.
The Lakers shipped off their All-Star big man to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick. As good as the three players were, they could not equal the value that O’Neal brought to the court. The Lakers failed to get past the first round of the playoffs with Bryant as their lone superstar for three straight years.
Incensed with all the losing, Bryant asked to be traded to the Bulls where he would try and recapture that elusive championship trophy without O’Neal, a goal that he had in mind especially after the former Lakers center won his fourth ring in 2006 with the Heat.
Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation’s Blog-a-Bull mentioned the video where Bryant pretty much told everyone that he was going to be a Chicago Bull in the upcoming season.
“Kobe was walking through a mall parking lot when a couple of fans approached him and begged him to stay in LA. ‘Get a Bulls uniforms, fellas,’ Kobe said.”
The Trade That Should Have Happened
If the Bulls wanted one of the league’s best, they had to give up a player who they could build around as well. The Lakers wanted Luol Deng, then a promising young player who was developing offensively, but was a tough defensive player already, along with any players that the Bulls would send their way. The Bulls may have agreed to it but Bryant didn’t want a player of Deng’s promise to be included in the deal because he didn’t want a repeat of the Lakers situation with the difference being that he was in Chicago rather than in L.A.
According to ESPN’s Chris Sheridan, the talks pretty much ended with Bryant’s request as both teams couldn’t reach an agreement without Deng included in any proposed deals:
“A source with knowledge of the trade talks said Deng has been included in proposals swapped between the teams, but Bryant has continually threatened to veto almost any deal in which Deng would be included. Bryant wants to be sure that the team he joins has enough talent remaining to compete for the NBA title.
The source said talks between the teams had stagnated, though by no means were they dead. And while the difficulties involved in the deal — making the salaries match, and trying to trade players onto 15-man rosters now that the preseason roster flexibility has elapsed — continued to be formidable, the Bulls remained determined to pursue every avenue toward acquiring Bryant from the Lakers.”
Also according to the report, the Lakers wanted not only Deng, but Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon and rookie Joakim Noah as well in any trade package they discuss in exchange for Bryant.
So what if the Lakers acquiesced and allowed the trade to happen without Deng? Let’s say L.A. chose to get Thomas, Gordon, Noah and a couple of future first-round picks instead.
That means the Bulls lineup would look like this:
C – Ben Wallace
F – Joe Smith
F – Luol Deng
G – Kobe Bryant
G – Kirk Hinrich
C – Aaron Gray
F – Adrian Griffin
F – Andres Nocioni
G – Thabo Sefolosha
G – Chris Duhon
The Bulls bench would be quite thin but the starting unit looks pretty solid especially on the defensive end with Hinrich and Bryant playing matador defense in the backcourt and Deng, Smith and Wallace in the frontcourt. Wallace, in particular, was still capable of being a defensive force despite playing less minutes than when he was with the Detroit Pistons where he won Defensive Player of the Year honors four times.
Just as in L.A., much of the scoring would be coming from Bryant since this Bulls team is more defensive-minded. But this is definitely a better team than the one he had with the Lakers. The Bulls had a 49-33 record at the end of the 2006-07 season, winning their first playoff series since Michael Jordan walked the halls of the United Center. Their coach was Scott Skiles, the former hard-nosed, no-nonsense player who appeared to be the man for the job until Chicago started off slowly the following year. Could Bryant have saved Skiles’ job? Most probably.
It’s interesting to note that Bryant won the 2007-08 MVP award with the Lakers after averaging 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals per contest. It was also the first time that he played all 82 games. The Lakers that year acquired All-Star power forward/center Pau Gasol in a trade and finished the regular season with a 57–25 record.
2007-08 Bulls with Bryant
If Bryant had been on the Bulls roster, on the other hand, Chicago could have equaled their 49-win season from the previous year or perhaps get to the 50-win mark. Would it have been enough to give him his first and only MVP award? Definitely. Voters love a good story especially for someone as prominent as the 6-foot-7 shooting guard.
What’s even more intriguing about this alternate reality scenario is Bryant’s desire and audacity to play for the team where Jordan built his legacy. He was essentially willing to take on the Jordan comparisons head on by playing on the old stomping grounds of His Airness. If Bryant’s insistence of not including Deng in the deal had been heeded, we could be looking at eight to nine years of his career playing in the Windy City with a chance to build on the legacy of the House That Jordan Built.
If the Bulls win 50 games, they would have the fourth best record in the East behind the Boston Celtics (66-16), Detroit Pistons (59-23) and Orlando Magic (52-30).
Kobe vs. LeBron…Finally!
In the first round, they’ll face the Cleveland Cavaliers who have the young but multi-talented LeBron James. After reaching the Finals the previous year and getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs, the Cavs were supposed to be better when the next season arrived. But the team proved to be less than ready for a repeat appearance in the title round, prompting the front office to make wholesale changes at the trade deadline involving two other teams—the Seattle Supersonics and the Bulls.
With Bryant around, the Bulls are not likely to be willing trade partners anymore so the Cavs would have had to search for another team to deal with. Let’s assume, however, that the trade with the Sonics was the only deal they were able to do. That means the Cavs still receive Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West at the deadline while sending Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall and a second-round draft pick to the Sonics.
That gives James’ Cavs a starting lineup to face-off against Bryant’s Bulls that looks like this:
C – Zydrunas Ilgauskas
F – Drew Gooden
F – LeBron James
G – Wally Szczerbiak
G – Delonte West
The Cavs weren’t as good as they could be when GM Danny Ferry made the trade. If the Sonics deal is the only one he could pull off without the Bulls’ cooperation, then they will be shorthanded when they meet Chicago in the first round. I see this as a 6- or 7-game series in favor of the Bulls. As good as the Cavs were defensively with coach Mike Brown, their offensive execution left a lot to be desired. On the other hand, the Bulls can play fairly well on both ends of the floor.
More importantly, this will be the first time that these rivals will go head-to-head in the playoffs. It would have been better if they met in the Finals instead but in this scenario with Bryant now in the East, we’ll have to settle for a playoff matchup. The good thing about this, however, is the fact that James and Bryant may actually end up as East rivals that could meet regularly in the coming years in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, that would be quite exciting to watch out for on an annual basis.
Second-Round versus the Boston Celtics
As good as the Bulls may be, they may not make it past the second round of the playoffs as they will be facing the revamped Boston Celtics who now boast a plethora of All-Stars with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. That’s a championship-quality lineup right there and one that the Bulls won’t be able to match even with Bryant as the team’s leader. I expect the Bulls to bow out in five or six games.
2008 and Beyond
Bryant will have to hope that Chicago’s management is better than the Lakers for the Bulls to have a yearly shot at going to the Finals. As we all know, the Celtics dominated the East for a while, making it to the championship round two times in three seasons from 2008 to 2010. Afterward, they faced James’ Heat two straight years and were eliminated both times, prompting GM Danny Ainge to blow up the team in the summer.
If the Bulls surround Bryant with ample firepower from the draft as well as key free agents during his tenure, Chicago could potentially be a perennial challenger for Eastern Conference supremacy for the next eight to nine years. If coach Tom Thibodeau eventually coaches Bryant, and the Bulls add a number of core pieces such as Jimmy Butler aside from Deng, another championship or two seems reasonable. The weak East practically assures us of this, thus, making his move to Chicago a pretty good gamble. He could well match the two rings he earned while with the Lakers but they will likely come after a few years of acquiring complementary pieces around him.
Ring Count and Retirement
With five rings for his entire career by the time he retires in 2016, there’s no doubt that Bryant’s jersey will be hanging from both the Lakers and the Bulls’ rafters. But instead of L.A. retiring two jerseys, they’ll settle for No. 8 only while Chicago hangs up No. 24.
One of the more interesting points of discussion for Bryant is if he will be able to play for a contender until his final season or if injuries will continue to play a part in his later years. If the Bulls could have surrounded him with All-Star talent every season that he played, then Bryant would not be as overworked during the season as he was with the Lakers, thus, limiting his chances of injuring himself. With that in mind, there’s no telling what his final all-time numbers would look like compared to the all-time greats. He may actually end up with better career stats if he had been traded to the Bulls than if he had stayed with the Lakers.
Alas, there’s no way for us to know for sure how things could have turned out for one of the game’s greatest luminaries had he played for the team of his choice in 2007.
But it’s great to dream, isn’t it?