(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the great “what if” moments in franchise history. Next up: What if the Pistons had pulled off the Kobe Bryant trade – in 1999?)
It stayed under wraps for several years, but eventually Kobe Bryant confirmed the rumors: Yes, he vetoed a 2007 trade to the Pistons.
But there was another time the two teams discussed a Bryant trade, too, at least in the telling of Phil Jackson.
It happened in Jackson’s first season as Lakers coach, 1999-00. Jackson sat out the 1998-99 season after his semi-forced exit from the Chicago Bulls – go catch up on “The Last Dance” if you want more of the backstory of that saga – and came to the Lakers amid great fanfare with his six NBA rings.
In Jackson’s 2016 telling to his longtime confidante, Charlie Rosen, the Lakers were off to a good start while Bryant missed the first 15 games with a broken wrist suffered in preseason – Jackson says 10-1, though they were 7-3 in their first 10 games and 11-4 on Dec. 1 when Bryant returned – and he didn’t want to mess with the starting lineup so had Bryant coming off of the bench.
Right around that time, Jackson said, Bryant requested a trade.
Jackson: “Kobe was only averaging about 19 points per game. 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.”
Bryant was 22 and in his fourth season. Hill was 28 and in his sixth – and final – season with the Pistons. The front-office dynamics of both teams were in flux at the time and lend credence to the possibility that the trade actually might have been made.
From the Lakers end, icon Jerry West – “The Logo” – was in what became his final season as Lakers general manager, ending a magnificent 40-year run as player, coach and executive, with the first and last of those three chapters among the greatest ever authored. There was friction between West and Jackson, rumored at the time but conclusively validated by West’s abrupt departure after Jackson’s initial season.
From the Pistons end, Joe Dumars was in an unusual apprentice year before his scheduled ascent to president of basketball operations after that 1999-00 season. Rick Sund was general manager at the time but fully aware he was grooming Dumars to be his successor. Dumars, in fact, had resisted owner Bill Davidson’s offer to install him as GM immediately upon his retirement as a player after the 1998-99 season, Dumars feeling he needed a year of separation from the roster he’d just left as a player to manage as an executive.
So, in effect, the two power centers involved in trade talks were not the general managers, West and Sund, but the Lakers coach and the Pistons second in command. Hear again the phrasing Jackson uses: “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 …”
“I” thought about taking the Pistons up on an offer they made. In Jackson’s mind, it’s clear: He had the authority to swing that trade. Given that West left in the middle of a contract, it’s fair to extrapolate that West felt marginalized by Jackson’s presence, too, with speculation that Jackson’s public relationship with Jeannie Buss, now Lakers chief executive and then moving into a position of authority in the front office helmed by her father, owner Jerry Buss.
It also makes sense that Dumars would have been intrigued by moving on from Hill a year ahead of his free agency. Dumars mentored Hill when the Pistons drafted him in 1994 – though Hill after four years at Duke needed precious little mentoring – at the request of his father, ex-Cowboys great Calvin Hill. So Dumars probably had pinpoint insight into Hill’s thinking and his frustration after having such overwhelming expectations placed on him and not achieving much in the way of team success despite spectacular individual achievement.
Dumars, in other words, probably had an inkling Hill was intent on leaving as a free agent in July 2000 and wanted to get ahead of the challenge that would create for a newly hired executive by dealing for the younger Bryant. Two years later, Dumars pulled a stunning trade shortly before training camp was to open, dealing leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse – one year ahead of his free agency – to Washington for a younger player at the same position, Rip Hamilton. That was the blueprint for a 1999 Hill-for-Bryant trade.
What might have happened if Jackson had pushed for the trade is anyone’s guess. Hill’s departure eventually resulted in a sign-and-trade deal with Orlando that netted Ben Wallace, who became the first critical building block in Dumars’ masterful construction of the 2004 NBA champions. The Goin’ to Work Pistons posted seven consecutive 50-win seasons and played in six straight Eastern Conference finals.
With Bryant as the first building block, there’s no way to know how Dumars would have built a roster around him. There’s no way to know if the Pistons would have won multiple titles with a team built around Kobe Bryant – or failed to match the one title that a team begun with Ben Wallace achieved.
But given the career Bryant carved out and the legacy he left before his tragic death in January’s helicopter crash, it unquestionably would have been a fascinating era.