In honour of Kobe Bryant's 40th birthday on Thursday, we're rolling out Kobe Week! Each day we'll be celebrating his finest moments, pondering the unanswerable questions and diving into a legacy that's among the most storied in all of sports.
Best case scenarios break dance in the head of every fan of every team in every sport in every country, spinning on end with the limitless possibilities and contorting reality in the grandest of ways imaginable. For the optimist inside all of us, it's part of what makes fandom so fun. Sure, breakdancing with abandon can lead to unreasonable expectations that sometimes crash in spectacular fashion, but that's life as a sports fan.
If you asked 1,000 Lakers fans to mentally breakdance in the summer of 1996, I'm not sure any of them concoct a version as majestic as the one which played out over the two decades to follow. Kobe gave Lakers fans an unprecedented reality and one that's almost impossible to imagine playing out any other way.
What if the Hornets kept Kobe? What if Kobe and Shaq made it work? What if the Lakers traded Kobe to Chicago?
We applied the Butterfly Effect to Kobe's career, diverging at the three biggest forks in the road along the way.
WHAT IF CHARLOTTE NEVER TRADED KOBE?
As the four-minute long highlight package set to Petey Pablo's 'Raise Up' comes to an end, 20,000 'Thank you Kobe' shirts spin like helicopter blades in unison, stirring up a buzz that sends an already electric crowd into a frenzy.
Eyes shift from the video board down to the floor where the Hornets legend is ready to see his name and number immortalized in the rafters. As Bryant pulls on the cord, eyes shift back towards the ceiling where the black curtain drops to reveal that artful No. 24 in turquoise, purple and white, hanging majestically next to the trio of championship banners.
It's a pinch-me moment for the entire organization, one that nobody could possibly fathom actually playing out back on June 26, 1996.
"With the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets select Kobe Bryant from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania." As the words rolled off David Stern's tongue, those in the know had already moved on as there was an agreement in place with the Lakers to trade Bryant for center Vlade Divac. Though Bryant wore the Hornets hat, most knew at some point in the coming days he was destined for Hollywood.
Except it never happened.
Bryant remained in Charlotte where he started the year coming off the bench on a veteran team with proven perimeter talent. Unlike in Los Angeles where he would have waited his turn behind All-Star Eddie Jones, Bryant's aura eventually won out when halfway through the season he supplanted Dell Curry as the team's starting shooting guard.
The Hornets dispatched the Hawks in the 1st Round before the much-awaited showdown between Bryant and Michael Jordan. After MJ torched the Hornets for 44 in Game 1, the 18-year old hit back with some fire of his own, shocking the 69-win juggernaut with 39 points in a Game 2 win. Though Chicago would go on to win in five, Bryant had Jordan's full attention. "His time is coming. I'm not going to hand out anything but the way he competes… 24 is special, man."
Another season came and went and then it happened: Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls leaving a now 20-year old Bryant chomping at the bit to take over the Eastern Conference.
In the first post-Jordan year, Bryant led the Hornets to an upset of Reggie Miller's Pacers in the second round before falling to Patrick Ewing's Knicks in Game 7 of the Conference Finals with Bryant missing the potential game winner at the buzzer.
The memory of that Game 7 failure burned in the back of his mind, propelling Bryant back to the Conference Finals a year later where this time he dispatched the Knicks and delivered the first Finals appearance in Hornets history. Waiting for Bryant? Freshly minted MVP Shaquille O'Neal, also still seeking his first title.
Shaq was simply too much. Despite Bryant's best efforts, the Hornets didn't have the firepower to keep up as Rice's best days were clearly in the rear-view mirror. Winning the East was one thing. But to get past Shaq, Kobe needed a second star.
With Rice's contract up, the Hornets entered the summer of 2000 determined to land some serious help. With the Orlando Magic prioritizing runs at Tim Duncan and Grant Hill, Charlotte lasered in early on budding star Tracy McGrady. Selling a future with fellow preps-to-pros Bryant and Rashard Lewis, who the team selected at the back of the 1st Round in 1998 and by this time had emerged as a fringe All-Star in his own right, Charlotte ultimately landed T-Mac and the makings of a dynasty unlike any other were set.
MORE: Who is the next Kobe?
They clicked from Day 1, McGrady dropping 44 in his debut followed by a 40-spot for Kobe the very next day. Nobody had an answer for what looked like the second coming of Jordan and Pippen as the talented duo steamrolled their way to 63 wins with Bryant winning the first of his three MVP awards.
A second straight date with Shaq awaited only this time, Kobe had an All-League running mate. It proved to be the difference as T-Mac balled out to the tune of 25-7-7, threatening to snatch the Finals MVP award that eventually went to Bryant.
Charlotte couldn't have been in a better spot. The 22-year old running mates had officially conquered the NBA and looked poised to spend the foreseeable future in the thick of title contention. They played seven more seasons together, reaching the Finals five more times while pushing the ring tally to three. After the 2008-09 season culminated in their third title, McGrady left for a chance to lead his own team.
With McGrady himself a world class scorer, arguably Bryant's equal on that end and out from under his shadow, the mamba mentality showed on the defensive end where his thirst for recognition as the game's unquestioned tog dog even led to a Defensive Player of the Year nod in 2009-10 with Bryant joining Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win that and MVP in the same season.
In the years to come, the Hornets tried building another true contender around Bryant but to no avail. Gilbert Arenas, Andre Iguodala and Pau Gasol all shared a cup of coffee in Charlotte though none could quite help Bryant return to the promised land.
When he finally called it quits, he did so as the second all-time leading scorer, a 3-time champion, 3-time MVP and unquestioned icon who saved basketball in Charlotte. There was no shared history, no statues of other legends outside, no ongoing debate about who was the best Hornet of all-time… it was simply Kobe. No fan base, not even those pesky Jordan fans in Chicago, could match the love that Charlotte felt for No. 24.
As Kobe looked up at the same jersey he donned for two decades in the Queen City, he never felt happier.
WHAT IF KOBE AND SHAQ STAYED TOGETHER?
"What's my biggest regret?"
Shaquille O'Neal would choose his next words carefully after reading back aloud the audience question. Sitting immediately to his left, Kobe Bryant arched his eyebrows, eagerly awaiting O'Neal's next words.
"Kazaam 2 would have killed it."
Light-hearted laughter fills the auditorium as O'Neal deadpans in his trademark monotone, Bryant simply shaking his head with amusement.
Truth be told, there's not much regret to be had on O'Neal's part, especially when it comes to success on the hardwood. A pairing with Bryant that resulted in seven titles didn't leave much wiggle room except for perhaps the lone hiccup coming after a tumultuous season that nearly led to their premature breakup.
Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a 1st-round pick. That was the offer on the table following the shocking loss to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, the result of turbulence which had the two superstars butting heads and everyone else either picking sides or pointing fingers as Bryant and O'Neal engaged in high stakes tug-of-war pulling at the seams of the league's marquee franchise.
Rather than acquiescing to O'Neal's trade request, cooler heads ultimately prevailed with Bryant, O'Neal, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and owner Jerry Buss mending relationships and bruised egos all around. All parties bet on the belief that winning cures all and boy did it ever.
MORE: What is your favourite Kobe season?
With a hungry and still capable Gary Payton and Karl Malone back in the fold, the Lakers busted out of the gates in 2004-05, cruising to a 21-4 capped by a Christmas Day win over the same Miami team which nearly traded for Shaq in July. Motivated to get in his best shape in years, O'Neal delivered from Day 1, posting season averages of over 27 points and 12 rebounds per game en route to finishing second in MVP voting. Bryant meanwhile finally won his first scoring title, pouring in 49 points in the final game of the regular season to leap frog Allen Iverson.
The feel-good vibes only reverberated more strongly in the playoffs as the Lakers once again reached the Finals, this time without hardly breaking a sweat. In a Finals rematch, they wasted no time exacting revenge and won handily in a sweep with Bryant claiming Finals MVP after torching the Pistons to the tune of over 38 points per game.
Nobody was happier for Bryant than O'Neal, who afterwards on the podium, thanked Bryant profusely for never settling and announced for all to hear that this was now Bryant's league. In classic Shaq fashion, he let the media know moving forward that he'd be known as "Big Deputy", with Kobe playing the part of Sherriff.
The next two seasons was more of the same. Though Payton and Malone retired following that championship in 2005, the Lakers went on to complete their second 3-peat with Bryant winning back-to-back MVP awards. Six titles in eight years and three Finals MVPs apiece, Kobe and Shaq had in the eyes of most, at least taken a seat alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as the best duo in league history.
They weren't done yet.
After finally losing to the Spurs in the second round in 2008 and getting off to a lethargic start to begin the 2008-09 season, Kupchak swung for the fences and traded for Pau Gasol. Relieving pressure from Bryant and allowing the now 35-year old O'Neal to conserve for the playoffs, the Gasol trade re-ignited the dormant dynasty as they won yet another title.
Though O'Neal called it quits, thus signalling the end of the most successful partnership in modern NBA history, Bryant and Gasol returned to successfully defend their title in 2010, bringing Kobe's ring total to a whopping eight with Bryant claiming his third MVP.
Those proved to be the last major trophies in his case as Bryant played three more seasons, making the playoffs each time though never seriously contending for another championship. By the time he called it quits at the end of the 2012-13 season, the resume stood unassailable: 17 seasons, 8 championships, 5 Finals MVPs, 3 league MVPs, the NBA's 2nd all-time leading scorer and one half of the greatest duo in league history.
Oh and Dear Basketball still won the Oscar.
WHAT IF KOBE WENT TO CHICAGO?
November 6, 2007.
The Bulls were 0-3 and playing host to the Clippers. Judging by the early crowds and frenzied media, you would have thought it was Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
"And now… 6 foot 6… shooting guard… making his Bulls debut… Koooobbbbeeeee Bryant!"
Tommy Edwards, the Bulls PA announcer, may as well have been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as the cheers bounced off the walls of the United Center, drowning out any and all other sounds.
After months of speculation which dragged out into the start of the season, the Bulls and Lakers finally agreed to a deal with the Lakers ultimately budging on their insistence to get back Luol Deng as part of the return package.
Three years prior, they traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat and hitched the future of the franchise to Bryant. One missed postseason and two 1st-round exits later, it was now a frustrated Bryant asking out.
Armed with a no-trade clause, Bryant could veto any trade meaning the Lakers couldn't simply dangle the league's best player and take the best offer. He wanted Chicago and he wanted to play with 22-year old rising star Luol Deng. Of course the Lakers also wanted Deng, hence, the awkward and stalemate. The Lakers were in a tough spot and facing the prospect of trading away both of their MVP-caliber superstars not too long after riding them to a 3-peat.
Ultimately, they decided to move on from Bryant, settling on a haul of Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and a future 1st-round pick (the pick which in real life turned into Derrick Rose).
On that blustery November night, Bryant looked every bit like the statue outside: finishing in traffic, draining turnaround fadeaways, punishing mismatches and locking down passing lines. After scoring 37 points and leaving with four minutes left in the 4th to chants of "M-V-P", it was clear Bryant had every intention of filling Michael Jordan's shoes.
In a vacuum, Bryant flanked by a pair of defensive aces in Deng and Ben Wallace could have posed a real threat. Unfortunately for Bryant, his arrival coincided with the formation of the Big 3 in Boston - not to mention rising powers in Cleveland with LeBron James and Orlando with Dwight Howard. True contention wouldn't happen immediately as the Bulls bowed out in the second round in each of his first two seasons.
MORE: What would a Kobe-LeBron pairing look like in 2018-19?
The summer of 2009 proved critical. Though Bryant exercised his player option on the final year of his deal, Chicago's front office was desperate to make a big splash. Minnesota held the fifth and sixth picks in the draft and knew that Ricky Rubio, whom it desperately wanted a five, could opt to stay in Spain. In need of a point guard and not sold on either Stephen Curry or Johnny Flynn, Wolves GM David Kahn agreed to trade Chicago the 6th pick in exchange for the 16th pick, Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni.
With the Bulls desperately in the market for some scoring alongside Bryant, Curry proved to be the ideal fit as his shooting played perfectly off of Bryant while his defensive shortcomings were masked thanks to the size and skill of Bryant and Deng on the perimeter.
Chicago took off faster than expected, finishing 2nd in the East with Bryant winning his first MVP award and Curry taking home Rookie of the Year honours. Though they finished with a better record, the Bulls entered their 2nd round series against the defending champion Celtics as underdogs. As good as Boston's vaunted defence performed over the two years, it had never seen someone quite like Curry who even as a rookie opened seams for Bryant to get his and then some. Averaging 29 points per game through the first four games, the Rookie of the Year forced Boston to change everything thus opening the door for Bryant to slam the door shut, first with 46 points at home in Game 5 followed by a 52-point series-clinching road win in Game 6.
Chicago caught a break in the Conference Finals where instead of facing off against LeBron's 66-win Cavaliers, it instead met the Magic who pulled off an upset of their own. Staring down a good yet not imposing Orlando team and then a potential Finals against either Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets or Yao Ming's Rockets who were without Tracy McGrady, Kobe smelled blood. It was time.
The Bulls made quick work against Orlando, winning in a relatively easy five games. In the Finals, pitted against Anthony who many considered just as good as Bryant, it became obvious from the jump that Bryant was simply in another class. While Deng put the screws on Anthony, neither Dahntay Jones nor J.R. Smith could do anything to slow down the MVP who averaged 41.6 points per game, breaking Michael Jordan's record for scoring in a single NBA Finals.
Kobe was a champion again, this time the unquestioned leader. As Jordan himself heaped praise upon Bryant at the city's first championship parade in nearly two decades, one got the feeling he was just warming up.
For an encore, the Bulls added free agent Chris Bosh, an All-Star big just entering his prime and a perfect star to help bridge the generational gap between Bryant and Curry. It was the coup Chicago needed to stay on top in a summer that saw LeBron James link up with Dwyane Wade in Miami.
The ensuing battles between Kobe and LeBron were nothing short of spectacular, perhaps the grandest display of individual star power in the Eastern Conference since Jordan and Bird in the late 80s. Five straight meetings with three of them going to a Game 7. Curry's evolution into a superstar in his own right swung the pendulum in favour of Chicago as the Bulls won three of those five series resulting in two more championships for Bryant with wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City sandwiched around a loss to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's Thunder.
MORE: Kobe's head-to-head stats against other All-Stars
Following the sixth championship in 2015, Bryant decided to give it one final go. A 20th season - 10 in Los Angeles, 10 in Chicago - with the opportunity to finish with one more ring than Jordan… it was too tempting to pass up. While Curry's star shined bright enough to keep the Bulls towards the top of the East, a 37-year old Bryant couldn't quite elevate himself to match the LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins trio in Cleveland.
The day after Kobe officially called it quits and brought closure to a career spanning two decades, the Bulls announced plans for another bronzed statue outside of the arena.
6'6" with 6 rings, forever like Mike.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.