Earlier this week, we discussed the possibility of the Lakers trading for Kevin Garnett in 2007, the summer Bryant demanded a trade and the Lakers essentially called his bluff. They promised Bryant a new superstar and eventually brought him Pau Gasol. However, what if the Lakers weren’t quite as stead-fast? What if the Lakers didn’t call Bryant’s bluff and DID trade their superstar? While it’s nearly taboo to talk about a current Lakers squad without Bryant, that was very nearly the case in 2007.
The farther we get away from the “Summer of Kobe,” the more claims that various teams had agreed on a trade with Bryant. Mark Cuban claims that, in between his acts on “Dancing With the Stars,” he was talking with Bryant’s agent, Dr. Jerry Buss, and Mitch Kupchak. The talks with the Bulls were most public and Bryant’s preferred location. However, he did not want the Bulls to include Luol Deng, which the Bulls were willing to include and the Lakers insisted on being apart of the deal. Without Deng included, the likelihood of a deal being completed is quiet unlikely.
It’s a third deal, one that may not be as talked about, but one both the teams agreed upon, that is most intriguing. The Detroit Pistons, fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, agreed to a deal with the Lakers centered around breaking up their All-Star core to bring in Bryant in a “go big or go home” move. Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson, and a future #1 pick for the enigmatic guard. Bryant, however, wasn’t as keen to the idea and vetoed the trade, where he claims to have committed then and there that he wanted to be a Laker for life. However, what if Bryant had backed down from his heightened stance and accepted a deal to Detroit, where he would have certainly played for a title-winning team? Let’s dive into our newest what if…
Suppose Bryant decided this was the best situation for him and left to go to Detroit. The Lakers received likely the best possible package for Bryant, receiving two All-Stars and a first round pick, which we’ll assume is a 2008 first rounder. With Bryant, the Pistons likely sport a lineup similar to
PG – Chauncey Billups
SG – Aaron Afflalo
SF – Kobe Bryant
PF – Antonio McDyess
C – Rasheed Wallace
That team, fueled by Bryant’s desire to win a title outside of LA and prove the doubters wrong, storm into the Eastern Conference Finals where they meet the Boston Celtics new Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. Unfortunately for Bryant, his drive for a title wouldn’t be able to match Boston’s Big 3. The Pistons, who have also thrived on the team concept, don’t adjust well to a ball-dominant guard like Bryant and stumble down the stretch.
The once unbreakable core of the Pistons kept cracking before eventually shattering the next season with a disappointing second round exit by the Pistons. With nearly ever contract sans Bryant and Billups coming off the books, the Pistons go into the summer with tons of cap room. Bryant warns Pistons management to improve the team or else. Much like the Lakers, the Pistons call Bryant’s bluff and tell him to wait one year when LeBron, Wade, Melo, and Bosh are available. Begrudgingly, Kobe plays the year out with the Pistons missing the playoffs. However, with just Bryant and Billups in the lineup, the duo convinces Carlos Boozer to join forces with them. Looking for more size, they offer a big contract to David Lee, which the Knicks can’t match.
PG – Chauncey Billups
SG – Aaron Afflalo
SF – Kobe Bryant
PF – Carlos Boozer
C – David Lee
The lineup is a solid one, but never a title contending one. Bryant never wins another title and is always defined by what could have been had he not turned his back on the Lakers. Lakers fans treat him with the same disdain they did Shaq when he left, with anger and resentment immediately after, but slowly forgiving him.
In Los Angeles, things are much different. With the addition of Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, the Lakers further adapt the team dynamic that made the Pistons popular. This approach is especially successful in the triangle offense. The Lakers bring in veteran point guard Derek Fisher to help lead this new squad. Their depth chart actually is much improved from the previous season. This is also under the assumption they also make the Maurice Evans + Brian Cook for Trevor Ariza swap.
PG – Derek Fisher/Jordan Farmar
SG – Rip Hamilton/Sasha Vujacic/Javaris Crittenton
SF – Tayshaun Prince/Vladimir Radmanovich/Trevor Ariza
PF – Lamar Odom/Amir Johnson
C – Andrew Bynum/Ronny Turiaf
The new Lakers offense has a slew of young talent and isn’t too bad of a defensive deal. The starting five collectively fill the large shoes left by Bryant with egos being a non-existent problem. Hamilton and Prince excel in the triangle and the Lakers surprise folks, compiling a 52-30. However, in the incredibly strong Western conference, they only nets them the 6 seed, where they meet the Phoenix Suns for the third consecutive playoffs. The story lines are a dime a dozen: the obvious rivalry between the teams, new looks for both teams, Shaq’s return to LA for a playoff series. Built more to contain the Suns transition offense, the Lakers finally c0nquer the Suns.
In the next round, the Lakers face the Spurs, who have too much firepower for the Lakers and take them down in 6 games. The Lakers, knowing they have a lot of young talent that may not see playing time, decide to make a deal in the draft to fill a more pertinent need. They find their partner in the always questionable David Kahn and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers send Javaris Crittenton, Chris Mihm, and one of their 2008 1st rounders to the T’Wolves in exchange for their 3rd overall pick. Knowing they could use some youthful energy, the Lakers draft the young guard out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook.
With their second pick in the first round, the Lakers look for a more dependable back-up center for the still oft-injured Andrew Bynum, the Lakers draft athletic big man DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers next set their eyes on convincing free agent Rip Hamilton to return, following his success in the triangle offense. Happy with the improvements made by the Lakers and seeing Los Angeles as his best chance to succeed, Hamilton re-ups with the Lakers on a 3-year, $30 million deal. On opening night of 2008-09, the Lakers have a deep, talented roster.
PG – Derek Fisher/Jordan Farmar/Russell Westbrook
SG – Rip Hamilton/Sasha Vujacic
SF – Tayshaun Prince/Trevor Ariza
PF – Lamar Odom/Amir Johnson
C – Andrew Bynum/DeAndre Jordan
Under Phil Jackson, the Lakers are more experienced in the triangle and a deep team, a la recent Denver Nuggets teams. However, unlike those Nuggets teams, the Lakers see more success in the Western Conference. With Westbrook never going to OKC, Durant and the Thunder never move Jeff Green, making their big 3 of Durant/Harden/Green solid, but not nearly as good. However, by not trading Green for Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have a lot more cap flexibility.
The real Lakers of 2008-09 had a relatively easy road to the NBA Finals, only being tested by a young Rockets squad. These Lakers don’t have nearly the problems overcoming the Rockets and cruise into the Finals, where they meet Dwight Howard and the Magic. These Lakers, a far better defensive team than the actual 08-09 Lakers, have little problem shutting down the 3-point shooting of the Magic and win the title in 6 games.
The Lakers avoid any controversy and resign Tayshaun Prince to a 2-year deal that summer while keeping their core intact. Another season in the triangle and another season together results in a similar outcome as the previous year, with Westbrook and Jordan emerging as stars. Meanwhile, Bynum never truly proves he can be healthy and his trade stock slipping, the Lakers begin searching for options to trade him. They get wind of a superstar in turmoil in Denver, as Carmelo Anthony’s fight with Denver management begins. With a package centered around Bynum, Jordan Farmar, and a future draft pick, the Lakers pull of an in-season blockbuster for Melo and Kenyon Martin. Melo comes in and takes over the power forward spot, moving Odom to the bench, where he thrives as the 6th man.
With a prolific scorer and solid defenders, the Lakers pull off the repeat. The following summer, the Lakers do not resign Fisher, giving the starting reigns to Westbrook. They agree to a max extension with Anthony, locking him up for the future, as well as extending Odom. The Lakers, with a core of Wesbrook, Melo, and DeAndre Jordan paired with veterans Prince and Hamilton, the Lakers are set for future success.
Instead of all of this, Bryant remained a Laker, which isn’t a bad consolation prize if you ask me.