When special things happen they are not meant to be repeated, that is why they are special. But sometimes the past is linked to the future. In this case it is because a talented point guard is eighteen years old. He signed with his hero’s agent, and because that hero is the iconic Kobe Bryant assumptions come flying out the sky. Dante has been seen at Staples Center games. He has openly professed to wanting to play for the Lakers and this is where it all goes sideways, this assumption that Dante Exum has the power, clout and ability to force a trade on draft day. It is based on a false premise: that the NBA of 2014 is the same kind of league as it was 1996. It is not. For that you can put all of the blame on Kobe Bryant himself. His success transformed how general managers look at talent. Twelve general managers passed on Kobe in 1996, twelve failed. Twelve teams were either afraid, unsure or just plain disbelievers even as Kobe’s high school resume detailed his life as a scorer. But Kobe’s extraordinary success has altered scouting. A high school player who was never supposed to succeed has had a Hall of Fame career. Imagine that. Twelve teams missed. Thirteen if you look at the team who drafted him and then unapologetically traded him, the Charlotte Hornets.
Can a player get into the paint and finish through contact? That is the most important question. Whereas teams used to see flaws and immaturity and a downside in drafting teenagers now they see their explosiveness and leaping ability and athleticism. Kobe ushered in an entirely new class of NBA talent, the young perimeter player, the gifted guard. He was the first guard to not go to college and play in the NBA, he was the first guard to win a title and not have college experience, he was the first to open the door so Tracy McGrady and Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston and Monta Ellis could follow behind him; talent triumphs over experience in this new model. But as great as Kobe has been over the years, as dynamic, none of it would have happened, Kobe never would have made it to Los Angeles in the first place if it hadn’t been for a different draft, the 1989 draft and a Serbian player no one heard of named Valde Divac.
In 1989 the Lakers had the 26th pick in the draft and chose a seven footer who excelled in Europe playing for his home country of Yugoslavia. Vlade Divac won the bronze medal in the Fiba World Cup in 1986 and the silver medal in the Olympics in 1988 in Seoul. In 1989, the year he came to the Lakers, he was the European Player of the Year. The year he came to Los Angeles the Lakers had been swept in the NBA Finals by the Detroit Pistons after Magic Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in the finals. It would be Kareem’s last year in the NBA. Vlade was seen as a replacement and he was a productive center, a jovial, warm, happy go lucky European who loved to pass the ball and loved Los Angeles and had a nice touch around the basket and was a willing competitor and incredible teammate. His best years were 1993-95. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds and he played in 80 games. So when the Lakers needed an asset, a piece to offer a team in order to convince them to give up the prodigy shooting guard, prospective teams pointed to the heart of the team, the seven foot center, the Lakers cherished leader. He had been to the NBA Finals. He was the most beloved member of the Lakers team. You want Kobe, they said. Okay. We want him.
On draft day in 1996 there were two camps. There was the Jerry West is crazy camp; you don’t trade your seven foot center for a high school player who didn’t go to college. What if he is a bust? The other side loved what Jerry did. Prior to the draft Kobe had become this urban legend for his arrogance. To think he could play in the NBA when he did not go to college. No guard had ever done it before. If you love an underdog story or if you love to root for people others are skeptical about then you loved Jerry West pulling the trigger on the deal. But for all deals everything has to fall in place. A team had to draft Kobe that needed a center. Allen Iverson was the number one pick and the first guard taken. Then Stephon Marburn was the number 4 pick and the second guard taken. Ray Allen was the number 5 pick and the third guard taken. Kerry Kittles was the number 8 pick and the fourth guard taken. And the next guard taken was Kobe at number 13, taken by Charlotte. It was an easy trade to make. Charlotte’s general manager Bob Bass looked at Valde and then he looked at Kobe and he thought Vlade is right now. Vlade is a seven footer. Vlade played against the Bulls in the NBA Finals. The league is a post player league. There was Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. You don’t win with an 18 year old; they take years to develop. Scorers come and go but skilled big men are hard to find. Plus Vlade could carry a team right now which was what he did. The Hornets had a thirteen game improvement over the year before Vlade came. They made the playoffs for only the third time in their history. As for Kobe, that year he made the playoffs too. He had the famous air ball game against Utah. The Lakers lost in the second round.
The NBA has long gone past the Ted Stepien era. Ted Stepien was the former Cleveland Cavaliers owner who inspired a rule because he made the worst trades in NBA History. He routinely traded his first round picks. One of them turned out to be James Worthy. The Stepien rule is that you cannot trade first round picks in consecutive years. Teams are more sophisticated now and more intent on receiving something in return if only to explain it to their fan base. Assets are the most important word in the NBA . Do you have assets? The Lakers had an asset in Vlade Divac in 1996 and used it for Kobe Bryant, the kid who they knew was special. Eighteen years later the Lakers have zero assets and because of it have to take whatever special player is left for them.
But. It might just happen, Dante Exum might just fall into their lap. But he may not. He may be drafted before the Lakers have an opportunity to grab him and there is not much they can do. No one on their current team is under contract and even if they were would it matter? Who would want a Jordan Farmar or a Jordan Hill for an explosive 18 year old point guard? The Lakers made a decision last summer to clear the books and make their mark in the free agency market. 2014 is not 1996. There is no Vlade to use to get someone else. There is no Jerry West maneuvering behind the scenes. There is no charmer in the wings, no Dr. Buss. There is the draft and there is the lottery and there is hope. And there is this reality: Dante Exum may will be another team’s point guard.