When you think of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the first names that come to mind is Kobe Bryant. With Bryant in town, the Lakers won five championships and were a fixture in the NBA Finals. Bryant finished his career as one of the greatest Lakers of all time. With that said, there was a time when it was not guaranteed that he would have finished his career in Los Angeles.
A confirmed rumor has it that the Lakers were considering moving Bryant before he won the team a single championship. In 1999, Pistons GM Joe Dumars offered a swap of superstars with the Lakers. While the trade may not have been completed, there were variables that might have contributed to considering the offer. From unhappiness, ego, and championship aspirations, both teams had a reason to complete this blockbuster.
Had he been traded, the dynamic of the Lakers would have been different. Would the Lakers have won five championships with the piece that the team got in return? That is a debate for another day. In the end, the trade never happened, but it brings a credible question of “what if” had it happened.
Here is the blockbuster trade that nearly happened.
Detroit Pistons Receive: Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Grant Hill
Phil Jackson came to the Lakers after taking one season off from coaching the Chicago Bulls. In his first season, it appeared that his relationship with Bryant could have come to an end a lot sooner than expected. The Lakers started the season off hot with an 11-4 record through their first 15 games. Bryant was out for the start of the season due to a broken wrist he suffered in the preseason. When Bryant returned, Jackson had him come off the bench because he didn’t want to mess up the starting lineup.
That led to issues with Bryant and the coach. Bryant didn’t want to be labeled as a player coming off the bench. He wanted to be in the starting lineup because he felt he was talented enough to be there. With that said, Jackson liked the team’s rotation through 15 games and chose to keep it the same. With Bryant’s back up against the wall starting, it led to a tough conversation.
“Jackson said Bryant told him, via Click On Detroit Sports, "I don't see myself starting now ... I don't want to be known as a bench player."
Ultimately, both sides were up in the air with their future. The Lakers were changing with Jackson as the new head coach, while Hill was appearing to be out the door after six years with the Pistons. In the end, the deal never happened because the team believed in their young superstar Bryant.
Phil Jackson Didn’t Think About The Proposal Too Long
Around that time, Bryant requested a trade according to Charlie Rosen’s 2016 book with Jackson. There was interest in creating a trade with Detroit Pistons star Grant Hill. At the time, Bryant was 22 years old, while Hill was 28 years old and in the final year of his deal.
“Kobe was only averaging about 19 points per game,” said Jackson. “So Kobe called Jerry West and wanted to know how Jerry and Elgin Baylor both averaged 30 points. Kobe also said that he wanted to be traded. Of course, Jerry told me about the conversation. And for a few minutes, I thought about taking the Pistons up on an offer they made to trade Kobe for Grant Hill. Make that a few seconds.”
Who knows if the Pistons would have been title contenders if Bryant joined the team. Who knows if Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill would have been a great duo. It appears that Jackson never truly pushed for the trade. Hill was eventually signed and traded to the Magic, where that trade is a building block of Detroit’s dynasty. As for the Lakers, the team might have won five championships.
Lakers Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Ron Harper
SG: Grant Hill
SF: Glen Rice
PF: A.C. Green
C: Shaquille O’Neal
With Glen Rice on the roster, the team would have had to move Hill to the shooting guard position, which is what Bryant occupied. The final season of Hill’s time with the Pistons was his best. He averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks. He also shot 48.9% from the field and 34.6% from three-point range. Pairing Hill with O’Neal might have been a similar duo to Shaq and Bryant.
The Lakers would have remained small because 36-year-old A.C. Green would have played the second forward position. With Hill, Rice, and O’Neal, you had a big three that likely could have combined to score 65 to 70 points each night. Hill would have also been fine with letting O’Neal be the face of the franchise.
Pistons Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Lindsey Hunter
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Jerry Stackhouse
PF: Terry Mills
C: Christian Laettner
The difference in wins would have been likely the same had this trade gone off. Bryant finished the season averaging 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.9 blocks. He also shot 46.8% from the field and 31.9% from three-point range. The Pistons finished the season 42-40, which was good enough to make the playoffs. With that said, the team was swept in the first round by the Miami Heat.
Bryant would have gone from having a true superstar as a teammate to being the lone superstar. Jerry Stackhouse was a solid player but he was not on the same tier as Shaquille O’Neal. Lindsey Hunter, Terry Mills, and Christian Laettner were also all fairly solid players. Bryant would have downgraded in talent to become the true face of the franchise.
Since Jackson never pushed for the trade, the Lakers ended with the best outcome possible. Bryant finished the season and eventually made his way into the starting lineup. The Lakers won 67 games and won the best record in the league. The team marched to the NBA Finals, where O’Neal won the first of three consecutive Finals MVP Awards. With O’Neal and Bryant leading the way, the Lakers won the title in 2000, 2001, and 2002 to complete the three-peat.
The Lakers made the NBA Finals again in 2004 but lost to, ironically, the Pistons. After that, O’Neal requested to leave the Lakers and the team was in Bryant’s possession. The Lakers acquire Pau Gasol and the team won a title in 2009 and 2010, while also making the NBA Finals in 2008. In the end, the Lakers won five titles with Bryant on the roster on top of all the All-Star, All-NBA, and MVP recognition he received along the way.
As for the Pistons, Hill left the Pistons after the season. He was involved in a sign-and-trade with the Orlando Magic, where the Pistons secured the first foundational piece of their eventual dynasty in Ben Wallace. The Pistons built a title contender, which included Finals appearances in 2004 and 2005 with one title. The team featured frequent Defensive Player of the Year winner Ben Wallace, as well as Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, and Rip Hamilton surrounding the team.
Hill saw his career decline after joining Orlando. In his first season, he played just four games. The following season was 14 games. After that, he played 29 games. After playing a combined 47 games in his first three seasons, Hill played his first full season in 2004-05 and averaged 19.7 points per game. The Magic were robbed of a healthy duo of Tracy McGrady and Hill, which set the franchise back for a few years.
Had Hill joined the Lakers and been hurt, the legacy of O’Neal might be viewed differently. The same goes for Bryant. Both players probably would have never won a title from 2000 to 2005. The Lakers would have had one shot to win the championship in 2000 when Hill was at his best. That is a big “what if” when you look at how anything can happen. Bryant might have won a title in Detroit, but Wallace was a huge part of the Pistons’ success because the team relied on defense. In the end, both teams won a title and had huge success from 2000 to 2006, so it all worked out.