Former Los Angeles Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant spent his entire 20-year career, where he has earned the reputation as not only one of the greatest players of all-time but arguably the best player in franchise history. However, there were a couple of instances where he could have taken a different path entirely that may have seen him don another uniform. One of those rare instances came in free agency that saw him nearly join the LA Clippers but wound up remaining with the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant’s Near Lakers’ Exit
Following the 2003-04 season, Bryant had entered the free agency period after a disappointing loss in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons. During that time, there was plenty of simmering tension between him and Shaquille O’Neal that saw their relationship sour to the point where a change was necessary.
That saw the franchise have to decide between which superstar they were willing to keep. O’Neal had demanded a long-term extension, but the team had balked at the idea of giving that type of money for a player at age 31. The two sides were reportedly $9 million apart on the two-year extension
What also compounded the situation was that head coach Phil Jackson had departed as part of the fallout of the tough situation that has built up between the two star players.
Jackson’s absence only made things more complicated for the Lakers, which saw general manager Mitch Kupchak voice that the team was willing to trade O’Neal and keep Bryant. Upon hearing the news, O’Neal had asked for a trade from the franchise.
It had created a difficult situation for the franchise that saw them at whim’s end with their young star player that had grown quite frustrated with the franchise and had serious interest in joining the Clippers. Before that monumental move was made, Bryant’s mind was changed to keep him in the Purple and Gold.
What changed Kobe Bryant’s mind to re-sign with the Lakers
The Lakers entered a disastrous offseason that saw much change on the horizon for the franchise with the expected departure one of their cornerstones. Meanwhile, their legendary head coach was out the door along with other major roster moves ahead.
It had reached a point where Bryant had reported had verbally agreed to join the Clippers in free agency, but at the last moment changed his decision. But it was a conversation with Lakers owner Jerry Buss that he has since said made the ultimate difference. (H/T Andrew Grief of the LA Times)
“At the end of the day,” Bryant said in 2016, “Jerry Buss trumped it all.”
At the same, former longtime team general manager Jerry West played a significant role in the decision. West voiced on Tuesday night during TNT’s Inside the NBA special honoring Bryant that he told him that he couldn’t play for then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
“I remember when he was going to leave the Lakers, and I’ve never really mentioned this to anyone, he was going to come and sign with the Clippers, who I’m now involved with as a consultant. And I told him, ‘Kobe, under no circumstances can you do this.’ And he was mad at everyone, the Lakers, the owner, everyone else. I said ‘Kobe you can’t go play with the Clippers. You can’t play for that owner, period.’ We had two conversations about it.
During this time, West was no longer with the franchise as he was serving as the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, which his actions showed the strong connection he had with Bryant off the court. Things wound shaking out in the Lakers’ favor that saw their star guard ink a seven-year, $136.4 million deal a day after the team traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy with Lakers
Things could have been drastically different for how Bryant’s career could have shaken out with the Clippers, but he stuck with the Lakers. His commitment to the franchise would be tested a couple of years later, but he remained with the team.
There were indeed ups and downs throughout his two-decade tenure in the league with the Lakers, but he created numerous memories while experiencing some tremendous amount of success. His career after 2004 saw him earn 12 more All-Star selections, two NBA titles, and his only MVP award, among other accolades.
It’s the ultimate what-if moment that could have changed the landscape of the NBA, but Bryant stayed with the franchise he became a legend that has an everlasting legacy for years to come.