When you look at some of the greatest big threes in the history of the game, some groups stick out. The Heat’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. There was a dynasty with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Before that, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were with the Celtics. Championship teams have always had star players rounding out the roster.
The Los Angeles Lakers were a pinnacle of that statement for years. However, the team nearly formed a big three of Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. Instead, the idea dissolved and left us wondering what could have happened with this group. Jerry West nearly pulled the trigger on having two teenagers lead the Lakers for the future, but the deal never happened.
This is the blockbuster trade that nearly happened with the Lakers and Raptors on the draft night all those years ago.
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Draft Rights to Tracy McGrady
Toronto Raptors Receive: Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell
The true trade details are not known, but it is documented that GM Jerry West didn't want to part with All-Star shooter Eddie Jones. Given that Jones and Elden Campbell were included in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets for Glen Rice, we can assume that this would have been a similar trade with the likelihood that the Raptors might have thrown in one extra player to fill salary cap voids.
According to Marc Stein of The New York Times, he chatted with former Lakers head coach Del Harris. At the time, Bryant was recently acquired by the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac with the Hornets. He had just finished his first season in the league. West supposedly liked the idea of having Bryant and McGrady grow together with an All-Star in O’Neal in the 1997 offseason.
“I don’t think anybody can look at an 18-year-old and say he’s a Hall of Famer,” Harris said. “You couldn’t even do that with Jordan. And Kobe was a young 18 in his first season. He was still in a pretty normal teenage body, compared to when LeBron James came in and had a man’s body.”
Hitting in the draft is a hard job for anybody. However, Harris said that the Lakers were confident that McGrady was an NBA-ready talent. Bryant took a few years before he carved a starting role. It sounds like McGrady was seen as someone that could replace Jones immediately and then the young duo would eventually form a big three with O’Neal in the middle.
“McGrady came in the next year with a more mature body and worked out so well that Jerry kind of tooled around with the idea that maybe we should just go ahead and make a deal for whatever it took to get this guy — even though it’d be a step back in the short term — to have two guys like this on the same team.”
As Harris said, it would have hurt the team in the short term, but the Lakers didn’t start winning championships until 2000 anyways. That was also after the team acquired Rice. By the end of those three years, McGrady and Bryant would have potentially been All-Star ready with O’Neal continuing to play as dominant as ever.
Jerry Buss Vetoed The Trade
It came down to the hesitation of rolling the dice on two teenagers. To be fair, if you were a general manager, would you have taken the chance on two teenagers and given up a proven All-Star. While it came down to the owner eventually making the executive decision, Harris had his reservations himself.
“Lakers owner Jerry Buss ultimately vetoed the idea, however, eager to end the team's title drought,” wrote Timothy Rapp of Bleacher Report. “Harris acknowledged that he was hesitant at the time to give up on an All-Star player like Eddie Jones for another teenager coming into the NBA directly from high school in McGrady.”
We have seen players in today’s league such as Greg Oden and potentially Zion Williamson not live up to expectations. Those are just number one picks. McGrady was the No. 9 selection in the draft, which makes the risk even greater.
Lakers Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Nick Van Exel
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Tracy McGrady
PF: Robert Horry
C: Shaquille O’Neal
If the deal went through, it would have likely meant that McGrady was going to slide in as the starter. Based on the comments from Harris, it sounds like the team truly believed he was an NBA-ready talent. Bryant was coming off a season that saw him come off the bench. With that said, it could have been a toss-up between McGrady and Bryant at shooting guard because Bryant took Jones’ spot when he was traded.
Finding shots for both Bryant and McGrady would have been tough, but that would have been figured out over time. You would have had two solid scorers down the line when the Lakers were ready to contend. After all, this move would have been for the future generation when both players were in their 20s. O’Neal had locked up a seven-year contract with the Lakers in 1997, so he wasn’t going anywhere anyway. The rest of the Lakers' lineup would have been solid.
Raptors Projected Lineup If Trade Happened
PG: Damon Stoudamire
SG: Eddie Jones
SF: Doug Christie
PF: Oliver Miller
C: Marcus Camby
With the current setup, the Raptors weren’t very good in 1997-98. The Raptors finished last in the Eastern Conference standings with a 16-66 record. That helped the team secure a lottery pick, which was used on Antawn Jamison in the 1998 NBA Draft. As for this starting lineup, it’s hard to believe that one Eddie Jones was going to raise this team from the gutter of the East.
All it would have done was set the Raptors back even further. The Raptors would have missed the playoffs and been out of a first-round pick. Granted, McGrady lasted just three seasons with the Raptors and didn’t carry the team to the heights they envisioned anyways. Regardless, it would have been foolish for Toronto to make this deal with their rebuild in full motion.
The Lakers could have made the move and probably been fine. It would have potentially stunned the growth of Bryant though. Bryant was allowed to play shooting guard more often when the team dealt Jones in 1999. That freed up the spot to allow Bryant into the starting role. Still, the Lakers probably would have given Bryant minutes and the role of starting shooting guard with his tenure from last year. McGrady was talented enough to play small forward anyways.
Instead, the Lakers kept Bryant and dealt Jones in a package that helped the team land Glen Rice. With Rice on the team, it was the addition that helped the team propel to the championship level. Everyone knows how this story goes. Bryant and Shaq developed into one of the greatest duos of all time. With Shaq leading the way, the Lakers won three straight championships while O’Neal won three Finals MVPs. That also included making the NBA Finals four times together.
Once O’Neal left the Lakers, due to a dispute with Bryant, it was Bryant’s turn to lead the franchise. The Lakers eventually acquired Pau Gasol and the Lakers made the NBA Finals three straight years from 2008 to 2010. The Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Bryant finished his career with the most points scored, pushing past all-time greats in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Elgin Baylor.
As for McGrady, it took a few years for him to get acclimated to the league. In 64 games, he averaged 7.0 points in his rookie season. That number grew to 9.3 points in his second season. His best season in Toronto was in 1999-00, where he averaged 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds. When he was acquired by the Orlando Magic, he grew into a scoring champion and also took a monstrous leap to average 26.8 points per game in his fourth season.
McGrady would enjoy a successful career with the Magic and Rockets, where he was a scoring machine and All-Star. He would never make the NBA Finals but would make the Hall of Fame. The big three of Bryant, McGrady, and O’Neal is a fun thought to discuss, but it’s one that seemed unrealistic. McGrady and Bryant would have had to find a way to both coexist on the floor. Both were at their best at shooting guard and there would not have been enough shots to go around with O’Neal commanding his portion as well.