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.
He’s not the nation’s No. 1 recruit. In fact, thanks to a lengthy stay in Italy he’s barely known at all outside of the Philadelphia area, where his father Joe once played for the local 76ers. But Mike Krzyzewski recognizes the gravity of landing Kobe Bryant. His Duke Blue Devils finally have the kind of scorer they need to get back to championship contention.
And boy, does Bryant live up to the hype. He’s so good, so quickly that he not only leads Duke to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and win multiple National Player of the Year awards, but actually manages to do the impossible. By mid-march, when Bryant’s Blue Devils storm their way to a Final Four while conference rival Wake Forest watches at home, many draftniks actually conclude that Kobe is a better prospect than Tim Duncan.
Duke destroys Arizona in their first Final Four matchup, setting up perhaps the greatest title game matchup in NCAA history. Kobe Bryant leads Duke against Vince Carter and arch-rival North Carolina. It is the first time the two teams ever meet in the NCAA tournament, but after Bryant wins a legendary duel with Carter, fans pray it won’t be the last.
Of course, Bryant decides not to stick around for a second season. Having accomplished all he set out to do at the college level, he enters the NBA Draft as a freshman. The race between Kobe and Duncan begins.
The San Antonio Spurs win the draft lottery surprisingly, and head decision maker Gregg Popovich spends several days with each prospects hoping one will stand out. They both do. Pop falls in love with Bryant’s competitiveness and work ethic, but is equally impressed with Duncan’s basketball IQ and quiet leadership. He comes to the conclusion that Duncan will probably be better right away, but Bryant is the better fit next to aging star David Robinson. If Kobe can reach his potential before the Admiral’s retirement, there’s a good chance Bryant will be able to deliver San Antonio their first championship. So they take Bryant first, leaving Philadelphia to eagerly grab Duncan second.
And, just as Popovich predicted, Duncan is the better rookie. Coach Larry Brown praises him ceaselessly, letting every reporter who will listen know just what a calming influence he’s had on second-year star Allen Iverson and how much he has changed the defensive culture for the 76ers. But Bryant has his fair share of rookie flashes as well. He wins the Dunk Contest, plays fierce defense and averages 16 points per game over the last two months of the season. He misses several key shots in a playoff series against the Utah Jazz, but San Antonio is quietly confident in what they have. With Kobe growing and Robinson still near his peak, they firmly believe they can claim Chicago’s abdicated throne once the 1999 lockout ends.
And that’s exactly what happens. Fortunately, the Spurs avoid Utah when they are surprisingly knocked out by Portland in the second round, and get even luckier when the No. 8 seeded Knicks win the Eastern Conference to become their NBA Finals opponent. The Spurs knock them off in five games to make Bryant the youngest Finals MVP in NBA history.
That championship proves to be Robinson’s last. He simply can’t stay healthy enough to help Bryant through another playoff run. Indiana takes the 2000 title over Portland, followed by Philadelphia in 2001, Sacramento in 2002 and Philly again in 2003. When Robinson retires after San Antonio’s second Finals loss to Duncan and the Sixers, Popovich knows he needs to find Kobe a new co-star. He settles on New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd.
Kidd’s Nets have lost back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia. Popovich bonds with him over their shared Duncan-sized roadblock, promising Kidd that together they can overcome the Sixers and win the Spurs another championship. He buys in, and when injuries to Iverson knock Philly out of the 2004 playoffs, another title seems all but assured against the lowly Pistons.
The only problem? Bryant and Kidd aren’t getting along. Talent alone takes them to the Finals, but the Pistons team-first attitude and excellent defense stifle San Antonio’s offense. Kobe shoots and misses relentlessly, Kidd sulks in the locker room, and when the dust settles and the Spurs lose in five, Popovich knows he has to make a choice: keep Kidd and risk losing free agent to be Bryant, or use Kidd as a trade chip to convince Bryant to stay.
He settles on the latter when another team has an unhappy star to deal. Lakers’ center Shaquille O’Neal wants to win a championship, and owner Jerry Buss is fed up with his selfish attitude. Rather than sign him to a long contract extension, he finds a willing trade partner in San Antonio. The Spurs send Kidd and little-known youngster Manu Ginobili to the Lakers for Shaq.
Kobe is thrilled with the arrangement. O’Neal represents the best big man he’s ever played with, even better than Robinson. Shaq assures the team that he’ll stay in shape (largely as revenge against the Buss family, but hey, a vengeful Shaq is a dominating Shaq), and the pair seems destined to usher in a new era of Spurs basketball.