Before the draft in 1996 the Lakers were looking to trade their starting center Vlade Divac. They wanted a player’s draft rights to free up salary cap space to make an offer to free-agent center Shaquille O’Neal. The Charlotte Hornets’ head scout at the time, said that the Hornets agreed to trade their No. 13 pick to the Lakers the day before the draft. Before the trade agreement, the Hornets never considered drafting Bryant. During the draft, the Lakers told the Hornets whom to select minutes before the pick was made.
After the draft, the trade was put in jeopardy when Divac threatened to retire rather than be traded from Los Angeles. However, on June 30, Divac relented on his threat, and the trade was made final on July 9, 1996, when the league’s off-season moratorium ended. Let’s assume in our exercise that Vlade put up more of a stink about who he was being traded to and the Hornets were forced to keep Kobe in one of our scenarios. The Lakers find someone else they can trade Vlade to and clear the space for Shaq. That’s a realistic alternate outcome that was in play.
Sacramento drafted the pick after Charlotte, but Kobe’s camp told them as they did several teams ahead of them like Charlotte if they drafted him he wouldn’t sign. That summer Art Tellem didn’t allow workouts for anyone but the Lakers trying to get him to the Lakers. Sacramento reportedly would have drafted him anyway. If there ever was a player equipped to take his talents to Europe it was Kobe considering he grew up in Italy and spoke Italian, but he wanted to go to the NBA. Either Sacramento or Charlotte would have also owned his rights, so he wouldn’t have had much choice. I think he signs, and it would have been more talk than actual problems. He didn’t pass up college to go to Europe or sit out. We’ll talk about both scenarios.
Let’s first take a look at the early stages of Kobe’s career.
When he went to the Lakers they were already in win mode having signed Shaq with the cap space they freed up that summer. It was a deep team on the wing and at the guard positions with Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos, and Robert Horry. They also had vets like Byron Scott and fellow rookie Derek Fisher. It’s pretty impressive Kobe still managed to carve out a 15.5 minute role on a team this deep.
Eddie Jones, Van Exel returned in the year too with Ceballos being replaced by Rick Fox and Byron Scott being replaced by Jon Barry. Kobe would find more of a 6th man role this season
This is the season Kobe stepped into a starter role averaging 38 minutes a game. Jones was traded 20 games in for Glen Rice and Van Excel was replaced by a platoon of Ron Harper and Derek Fisher.
The Hornets were coming off a 41-41 season but Larry Johnson was traded that off season for Anthony Mason. Adding Vlade Divac the Hornets would win 54 games that season with the core of Glenn Rice, Mason and Divic, but be swept by the Knicks in the 1st round of the playoffs. Dell Curry was the starter most of that season at Shooting guard playing 30 minutes and Ricky Pierce at 37 years old was the 6th man averaging 25 minutes a game in the 28 games he played, and journeymen like Tony Smith playing 18 minutes a game. There would have certainly been more of an opportunity for Kobe to play as a rookie in Charlotte.
Divac had a pretty good season, but Matt Geiger could have stepped back into a starting role. I expect Kobe would have found about a 25 minute role on this team, and the Hornets probably don’t win anywhere near 54 games but could sneak into the playoffs with 44 wins. I don’t think Divac was worth that many wins. They likely are swept out by the Bulls or the Heat. I think Kobe playing 25 minutes a game.
The Hornets would win 51 games this season and beat the Hawks in the first round with Bobby Phills starting most of the games at SG and averaging 10ppg. This season Kobe likely is a full starter playing around 36 minutes a game in Charlotte providing better value. Geiger is still in Charlotte and likely starting instead of Divac at Center. I could see the Hornets winning a similar amount of games in our alternate timeline and potentially taking a playoff series, and perhaps even getting a Hornets/Bulls matchup that happened and an iconic Kobe/Jordan duel.
Kobe was averaging 25 minutes on the Lakers by this season and would average 38 minutes the following season. I think on this Charlotte team with the competition being Bobby Phills and a 33 year old Dell Curry he’s a full starter 36 minutes per game. He’s also averaging numbers likely more like these.
It would have made a Jordan/Kobe potential playoff showdown more of a thing and nice story and footage for the Final Dance
The strike shorten season would see the Hornets finish 26-24 and miss the playoffs. By this point, Eddie Jones, Derrick Coleman, and Elden Campbell had replaced Mason, Divac, and Rice. Kobe was only getting better and by this point, it was likely his team. I think they win a few more games and make it into the back end of the playoffs and lose in the first round. They may have replaced the Knicks that season as the 8th seed that made it to the finals in a weird high variance short season.
The Kings said they would have drafted Kobe if the Lakers didn’t make the trade. The Hornets also didn’t have interest in him without the Lakers, and probably pick Tony Delk there a few picks earlier. Sacramento won 39 games the previous season and would draft and stash Peja Stojakovic and continue to be terrible. In what would have been Kobe’s first season (f they drafted him over Peja) the Kings won 34 games. On the surface, it seems like he should play more with the Kings than either the Lakers or the Hornets in this bad situation. I don’t think that is the case though without a trade. They had Mitch Richmond at SG and Billy Owens at SF blocking him. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf at Point guard. It’s the worst of all situations had he end up in Sacramento as a Rookie with Richmond playing 81 games at an all-star level. He probably takes all the bench minutes and averages about 25 minutes off the bench and similar to what he would have in Charlotte. The team is bad though.
The following season the Kings were even worse winning only 27 games. Richmond and Owens still remained and were healthy most of the season. A trade would likely have needed to be made to get Kobe starter minutes in this situation. He’s probably still playing 30 minutes a game or possibly starting over Owens. The team is terrible either way, and he’s likely very frustrated.
As bad as it appeared to be for the Kings they would have an amazing summer in 1998 that changed the future of the franchise. They would steal 25 year old Chris Webber from Washington for 33 year old Richmond in a trade that would free up space for Kobe to start as well in our alternate timeline. They would also still draft Jayson Williams as bad as they likley still are the prior season. At 23 years old he made an immediate impact. Vlade Divac would also sign with the Kings as a Free Agent. Corliss Williamson would move over to small forward giving them another 25 year old player. They would go 27-23 in the strike shortened season losing to the Jazz 2-3 in the first round. Paja wasn’t that good this season as a rookie and with Kobe starting in the alternate timeline and having a 20+ppg All star season they probably win more games and win a round or 2 in the playoffs fast forwarding the track these moves would put on. The Spurs probably still come out of the West and win the championship, but the Kings suddenly would have become a situation that was harder to walk away from
Rookie Scale contract
I think we need to first mention that Rookie scale contracts were started back in 1995 and stopped the major contracts being given to rookies. Chris Webber had signed a 15 year 74 million dollar contract just 2 seasons before. The number 1 draft pick in 1995 only one year later settled for 8.5 million for 3 years. This was initiated by veterans complaining rookie’s shouldn’t make more than players like Jordan, Barkley etc.
What is most interesting here is that a rookie became an unrestricted free agent after only 3 years. Unlike today where teams have control and a chance to match contracts beyond the rookie 4 year contract. Kobe would sign for 3.5 million dollars for 3 years where he was drafted and would have become an unrestricted Free Agent in 1999 and free to sign with anyone.
The Hornets had been a better-than-expected landing spot the first couple of seasons. I think he would have enjoyed his time overall in Charlotte but treated it like college and immediately bolted. I think they would have had no chance they keep him beyond 3 years.
The Kings would have been a very frustrating situation the first 2 seasons for Kobe, but flipped into a great situation with a lot of upside the 3rd and final season. This would have been a difficult choice to leave Webber, Jayson Williams, and Williamson all 25 or younger especially if they had won a series or two or made a conference final.
The 76’s are home, his hometown team. They also had 24 year old Allen Iverson and had won a playoff series. It’s a team that he could have joined and also elevated to a contender as they would make the finals 2 years later. Without the Lakers and desire to play with one team, his whole career already broke, it’s possible especially at a young age he might want to go back to his home near family and friends.
Jerry West would want Kobe, probably even more with how well he had progressed. Shaq is still there, Los Angeles is still a great place to live and the Lakers are still the Lakers. The spot would have been made I’m confident to sign him at the 9 million a year he signed for.
I think when it’s all said and done after 1999 he’s with the Lakers in the end, although the King’s situation was enticing. Kobe was always a LA type of star and angling to get there. I think in either situation in Charlotte or the Kings he has a more notable first 3 seasons statistically and role-wise. Only every playing with the Lakers adds some to his legacy as well though for those that care about that. Personally, I think it would have been cool to see him play more early and in a different situation. We may have gotten a Jordan-Kobe playoff match up for example. I think in the end though he’s on the Lakers by 2000 either way, and it all plays out similarly from there as it did.