Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
When Jerry West calls, you should probably just hang up. Doing just that ends up being the smartest thing the Charlotte Hornets ever did. On draft night, 1996, the Hornets refuse to trade West’s Lakers No. 13 overall pick Kobe Bryant.
Bryant’s first few seasons are fairly uneventful. He serves a useful role off of the bench on playoff teams in ’96-97 and ’97-’98, but doesn’t truly emerge as a superstar until the lockout shortened 1999 season. He carries the decrepit Hornets to respectability, and the team quickly realizes he is the sort of player you can build a franchise around. They use the No. 8 pick in the ’99 NBA Draft to give him a defensive co-star in UNLV’s Shawn Marion. Marion rides the bench as a rookie, but sensing his promise, the team trades incumbent star Glen Rice to Washington for Juwan Howard early in the ’00-’01 season. With a young core of Bryant, Marion and Howard, the Hornets race all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they meet the star-studded Toronto Raptors.
Toronto entered the series with the best record in the East thanks to their young trio of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Baron Davis (the fourth pick in the ’99 draft that netted Charlotte Marion). McGrady almost left the team as a free agent the previous summer, but was eventually convinced to return in large part because Davis’ distribution helped fans realize that he was just as talented as his more famous cousin Vince Carter.
The series reaches legendary status as Bryant and Carter trade 50-point performances, but at the end of the day it’s Charlotte’s defense that carries them into the NBA Finals. This becomes a common thread for the Raptors, who lose playoff series to Charlotte in three of the next four seasons largely due to their lack of defense. The Hornets, meanwhile, meet San Antonio in what promises to be the beginning of another major rivalry: Kobe vs. Tim Duncan.
Unfortunately, the series tilts towards San Antonio early and they end up taking it in five games. The Spurs hound Kobe from the start, throwing all different assortments of double-teams and traps on him in an effort to force the rest of the team to score. When they don’t, the Spurs win their second championship in three seasons.
Charlotte responds by adding free agent Robert Horry to provide an extra element of spacing to their offense. Horry had been trapped behind twin towers Shaquille O’Neal and Vlade Divac in Los Angeles and desperately wanted to both compete and start. Both wishes are granted with the Hornets, whose improved offense carries them back to the Finals where they meet the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings are nothing like the Spurs. Their fast-paced, pass-happy offense gives Bryant fits. He has to chase the slippery Mike Bibby around the court all series, and Doug Christie holds him to only 41% shooting. The Hornets desperately try to come back late in Game 6, but they just can’t get enough calls to close the gap. The Kings win the NBA Championship, and once again Bryant has to spend his summer hearing pundits question his clutch credentials.
He enters the ’02-’03 season as a man determined. Winning the championship is all that matters, and after winning a regular-season high 66 games, all the league can talk about is the upcoming Finals rematch between Bryant and Duncan.
This time, the Hornets dial up the pressure on San Antonio’s young guards. Kobe turns Tony Parker into such a non-factor that, after the series, the Spurs trade him to Seattle to help facilitate a successful pursuit of free agent Jason Kidd. Marion is just as impressive, coaxing rookie Manu Ginobili into eight turnovers in the series-clinching Game 6. As the final seconds tick away, so too does any ammunition left for the critics. When he is named MVP of the Finals moments later, the NBA is put on notice. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, and will be back here many, many times.
And he is. The faces change, like when Charlotte acquires Pau Gasol in 2008, and so too do the opponents, as Toronto gives way to Detroit, and then Cleveland and the Celtics. But for 20 years, Kobe Bryant is Charlotte’s anchor. He leads the Hornets to five championships and nine appearances in the Finals. He sets every meaningful franchise record. He even prevents the team from moving to New Orleans, as the city is so enthralled with their young star that they agree to build the Hornets a new arena. When he retires at the end of the 2016 season, the Hornets raise the number eight into the rafters knowing that there will never be a finer player in Hornets history.