Kobe Bryant — who was drafted 13th overall out of high school in 1996 — meant a lot to the NBA as it navigated the post-Jordan era and solidified itself as a major global brand. Along the way, Bryant won five championships and tortured several franchises while never wearing any uniform but the Lakers’ purple and gold. We said goodbye to the Kobe Bryant era after two decades when he retired in 2016. Here are the five franchises that the Black Mamba haunted the most.
Note: An honorable mention goes to the Charlotte Hornets, who originally drafted Bryant. Due to concerns that Kobe didn’t want to play in Charlotte, they traded his rights to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. It was an unfortunate situation, but not one that they had much control over.
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic make this list partially due to the fact that the Magic franchise was ripped apart by Shaquille O’Neal when he left Orlando and signed with the Lakers — the same season LA acquired Bryant’s draft rights. The Magic wouldn’t become significant again until the Dwight Howard era, which peaked in 2008-09 when the team made their first appearance in the NBA finals since 1994-95.
However, Kobe’s Lakers awaited them, and Bryant averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists to win the series in five games (earning the NBA Finals MVP award himself). The Magic haven’t returned to the NBA Finals and are now in the fifth year of a rebuild that hasn’t seen them finish over .500 or make the playoffs.
4. Chicago Bulls
While the Bulls never had the pleasure — or misfortune — of taking on Bryant in a playoff series, they make this list due to their history with Kobe. Bryant’s introduction to the league at the age of 18 coincided with the end of the Bulls’ run of six championships in eight seasons with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson.
After that trio left the organization, things went south for the Bulls and they’ve never fully recovered (the Bulls have made just one trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1997-98). But by the mid-2000s, the Bulls had collected some decent, young talent right around the time that the Lakers’ first run of championships disassembled.
Bryant hit free agency in 2004, met with the Bulls, and was strongly impressed with the front office. As things worsened in LA, Bryant demanded a trade to Chicago in 2007. It didn’t materialize though. Then, the Lakers brought in Pau Gasol and made three consecutive trips to the NBA finals, raising two more banners at the Staples Center.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Bryant only matched up with the 76ers in the playoffs one time, but it was memorable. The two teams played each other in the NBA Finals in 2000-01, with the league MVP, Allen Iverson, taking on the reigning champions. Iverson and the Sixers stormed into LA and took game one, with the iconic memory of his shot and then step-over of Tyronn Lue.
At that point, it wasn’t looking so certain that the heavily-favored Lakers would make back-to-back championships. But Los Angeles took the next four consecutive games, with Bryant averaging 45.5 minutes per game in those four and putting up 27 points, nine rebounds, and six assists per game.
On top of it all, he got to celebrate the clinching victory in Philadelphia, which happens to be his hometown. In a moment that surprises no one, the fans booed Bryant as he collected his NBA Finals MVP trophy. Bryant would still go on to win four more NBA championships, while the 76ers have yet to make it beyond the second round of the playoffs since.
2. Sacramento Kings
The Kings put together quite the team in the early 2000s, with Vlade Divac, Jason Williams, Chris Webber, Doug Christie, and Peja Stojakovic ushering in the modern era of quick-paced, three-point-shooting basketball. They were as great as they were a joy to watch, and for a franchise history with such a lack of success, they were easy to root for.
But this successful time was also unfortunate. Kobe’s Lakers bounced them from the playoffs three consecutive times, including a Western Conference Final that they once led (3-2) following a 61-21 season. Bryant averaged 27.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in that series and played 52 minutes in the deciding game seven, which he sealed by grabbing a big defensive rebound in overtime and making two clinching free throws. The Kings never made a trip to the NBA Finals with that team.
1. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers may be the least fortunate NBA franchise of all — just in general. They drafted Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan because they had Clyde Drexler blocking him at the shooting guard position, and they later watched as Jordan beat them in 1991-92 for his second championship. They traded away Drexler to rebuild, only to watch him win a ring with the Houston Rockets in 1994-95.
Then, after a solid core of talent was in place, it looked like they finally had a chance to be a serious contender. But the Lakers, yet again, stood in the way. From the 1996-97 season through 2001-02, the Lakers and Trail Blazers matched up in the playoffs five times, with the Lakers winning every single series — including a tough Western Conference Finals series in 2000 that went seven games and appeared to be in the Blazers’ control until the final minutes. During that time, the Blazers had a .626 winning percentage — or roughly a 51-win pace. Overall, the Blazers were 5-16 in the playoffs against Bryant and his Lakers teams.
The Blazers have seen even worse luck since then, losing superstar Brandon Roy to chronic knee problems and watching the team flounder in mediocrity until star forward LaMarcus Aldridge left last offseason to sign with the San Antonio Spurs. If there’s any team that missed their opportunity to win a championship and will be haunted by Kobe Bryant’s legacy, it’s the Portland Trail Blazers.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.