The basketball world is full of what if stories. What if Len Bias hadn’t died days after being drafted by the Celtics? What if the Lakers couldn’t convince the Hornets that Vlade Divac was worth a 17-year old high schooler? In a new series, I’ll dive into some of these topics from the Lakers side of things. Like what if Kobe had been traded in 2007? What if Lakers management chose Shaq over Kobe in 2004? Or, in this post, what if the Lakers had dealt for Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007? But in order to fully appreciate and accept this series, a certain level of belief may need to be suspended. The series is a purely speculative one, which can be interpreted in many different ways. In some cases, my thoughts may be different than yours, but that’s where the fun comes in. My hope is to get the wheels spinning and get fans thinking about how lucky the Lakers have been or how things might be different in Laker land.
In 2007, the Lakers were at a crossroads. Just three years earlier, they had chosen to build the franchise around young superstar Kobe Bryant instead of the aging Shaquille O’Neal. The immediate aftermath saw Shaq win a title in Miami while the Lakers missed the playoffs. The boiling point was reached in 2007 when the Lakers were dealt their second consecutive first round exit at the hands of the Suns, this time in embarrassingly easy fashion.. His demand was simple in terms, but difficult in execution: trade me. After committing to him in 2004, Bryant felt the Lakers weren’t trying to improve the squad, and in his defense, a lineup featuring Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Kwame Brown could easily be improved. Naturally, the Lakers were more than hesitant to deal Bryant, knowing an equal return would be impossible to attain in any trade. Instead, the Lakers looked to bring in a superstar in hopes that Bryant would back off his stance, namely a big man. The team, and Bryant, knew Brown and Chris Mihm were barely NBA talents and would never win a title as a starter. We know now that the Lakers essentially called Bryant’s bluff while maintaining activity in acquiring a premier big man, which would later become Pau Gasol. However, what if they had pulled the trigger earlier on a deal that summer?
Many big-time names were floated around as players whom the Lakers were interested in. One-year prior, the Lakers rumored refusal of a deal centered around Andrew Bynum and Jason Kidd led to Bryant’s famous rant. In the summer of 2007, Bryant and then-Pacer Jermaine O’Neal grew close and with both players unhappy in the current situations, looked to team up. The Lakers took heed of Bryant’s actions and were in talks with the Pacers for O’Neal. However, Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers were not satisfied with a package of Bynum and Lamar Odom. But it’s not O’Neal whom I find most intriguing from the “Summer of Kobe.” Instead, it was a different superstar player who, not quite as publicly, sought a trade to a contender. A premier big man who entered the league nearly the same time as Bryant and had went toe-to-toe in many Western Conference battles. For the sake of this article, we’re focusing on the Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett.
This isn’t too far-fetched an idea as the Lakers and Timberwolves were engaged in trade talks during the summer, at first discussing a potential blockbuster four-team deal, then later looking into a one-on-one deal. In hopes of keeping it as realistic as possible, we’ll ignore the unlikely four-team deal and focus on the head-to-head deal. The rumored, and most likely deal, would have been Garnett swapped for Bynum, Lamar Odom, and the Lakers 19th draft pick in the draft later that summer. Let’s say the Lakers pull the trigger on the deal, landing them the big man.
After completing that move, the Lakers pretty much depleted their resources. Assuming the deal was completed on June 27, 2008, around the time this report came out, the Lakers roster would look as such.
PG – Jordan Farmar
SG – Kobe Bryant/Sasha Vujacic/Maurice Evans
SF – Luke Walton/Vladimir Radmonovich
PF – Kevin Garnett/Brian Cook
C – Ronny Turiaf/Kwame Brown/Chris Mihm
That’s 11 of the 12 roster spots full before we even jump into free agency. And it’s not necessarily a good lineup. While they’re mindset changed on a dime during the off-season, going into the NBA draft, not much changed in terms of who to draft. We’ll safely assume they draft the same players to stash overseas in Sun Yue and Marc Gasol.
The first big move of free agency is one I’m certain the Lakers would replicate: signing Derek Fisher. Bringing in Fisher would stabilize the Lakers backcourt and appeal even more to Bryant. Plugging Fisher in at PG still doesn’t fix the fact that the small forward and center positions were below average. The Lakers look to swing a couple more moves to gain some solid role players. First, they send a first round pick and Chris Mihm to the Philadelphia 76ers for Kyle Korver. The Lakers are able to lure in a couple free agents to sign for the veterans minimum, first James Posey, then Ruben Patterson.
On opening night, the Lakers roll out a lineup of…
PG – Fisher
SG – Bryant
SF – Korver
PF – Posey
C – Garnett
A refocused and revitalized Bryant and Garnett are set on winning their first title and come out of the gates guns blazing. Still, the Lakers are a couple role players away from competing. Assume they’ll re-enact the Brian Cook + Maurice Evans for Trevor Ariza trade, giving them athleticism on the wing. Still, Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown are not getting it done in the post and the Lakers look to make another move, and guess who comes knocking? Around late December, realizing they had to make a move, the Lakers pull off a deal similar to one they made, sending Sasha Vujacic, Kwame Brown, the rights to Marc Gasol, and two future first round draft picks for Pau Gasol and a 2nd rounder. Your new depth chart looks like this…
PG – Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar
SG – Kobe Bryant, Kyle Korver, Ruben Patterson
SF – Vladimir Radmonovich, Luke Walton, Trevor Ariza
PF – Pau Gasol, James Posey
C – Kevin Garnett, Ronny Turiaf
The Lakers, filled with shooters at every position, thrive in the triangle offense. Kobe Bryant anchors the offense while Kevin Garnett leads the squad defensively. Gasol meshes even better in the triangle as he has more opportunities in the post as he and Garnett each can step outside to hit jumpers. The new bench mob of Farmar, Korver, Ariza, Posey, and Turiaf light teams up from the perimeter and bring a youthful energy that often can’t be matched. The Lakers who were 22-8 pre-Gasol, finish the season on a complete tear at 40-12, finishing with a 62-20 record.
In the playoffs, they blow right through Denver in the first round thanks to the domination of the Gasol/Garnett duo. The second round watches them dismantle a Jazz team they doesn’t have the firepower outside of Deron Williams to keep up with the Jazz. The Spurs offer minimal resistance, taking 1 game from the Lakers, who advance to the NBA Finals. There, they meet a Cavs squad led by LeBron James. After being embarrassed in the Finals one year earlier by the Spurs, James is back and hungrier then ever. Despite the Lakers success with Gasol and Garnett, the weak Eastern Conference allows the Cavs to compile a 64-18 record.
The Lakers grab both games in Cleveland before heading back to the Staples Center. Game 3 sees the Cavs refocused and take a 20-point lead into the second half. However, the Bench Mob takes over as Korver and Radmonovich enter a shooting contest, netting 9 second-half threes between the two of them to bring them back into the game. It’s still not quite enough as LeBron and the Cavs have the ball with 30 seconds left and up 1. With a chance to lengthen the lead, LeBron demands the ball, only to be met by Bryant one on one. Bryant forces LeBron left, where he looks to have a step. However, Garnett steps up, making LeBron force up a contested jumper. Garnett gets a piece of the ball and his shot goes straight up. Bryant, who challenged James shot also, out-jumps James for the ball and the Lakers call timeout, down 1 and 6.7 seconds left. Only one man gets the ball in this situation and Bryant isos one-on-one with LeBron, gets to the free throw line, pump fakes LeBron into the air, spins and hits his infamous floating jumper as time expires, giving the Lakers a 3-0 series lead and effectively ending any hope the Cavs had of winning the series. Game 4 is a mere formality as LA comes out motivated and beats the Cavs handily by 33 points. Kobe, Pau, and KG celebrate their first title together and the first title overall for the latter two.
What do you think Lakers fans? Do you think this is how it would have played out had KG been traded to the Lakers? Tell us down below and be in store for more “what ifs” in the following weeks.