The Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal version of the Los Angeles Lakers was one of the most interesting, impactful, and dominant teams in NBA history. General manager Jerry West brought the two future Hall of Famers together, and the pair carried the Lakers to three consecutive championships.
But everything began with a single trade.
West dealt Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant
#24for24 Kobe Bryant announced his decision to jump straight from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia and declare for the 1996 NBA Draft. pic.twitter.com/YTH5LDEPtQ
— Nice Kicks (@nicekicks) January 27, 2020
With the gift of hindsight, this is one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
Divac was a good NBA player. He was a consistent double-double threat at a time when 7-foot-1 centers were often franchise building blocks. The Serbian had started 79 games for the Lakers the year before he was traded, and he averaged 12.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and nearly two blocks per game. His stats improved almost entirely across the board the following season in Charlotte.
In return, West got one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was a promising prospect, but Bryant was far from a sure thing at the time.
But LA’s GM had more than one motive in dealing for Bryant.
The trade for Bryant was actually the first step in clearing cap space to sign O’Neal
The Lakers saved $3.3 million in salary-cap space taking on Kobe’s rookie deal instead of Divac’s contract. ($3.3 million was a much more substantial amount in 1996 than it is today). And according to Joel Corry, who worked as a consultant to O’Neal’s agent at the time (h/t CBSSports), it was West’s first step in clearing room for a chance at signing that year’s most prized free agent.
The Orlando Magic were dragging their feet in contract negotiations, which gave Shaq time to shop around. The Lakers eventually became his most aggressive suitor, so the LA GM continued to make moves to free up cap space.
He traded George Lynch and Anthony Peeler to Vancouver for another draft pick, then The Diesel signed a seven-year, $120 million deal with the franchise, and the rest is history.
It wasn’t the only move West made that netted LA Bryant and O’Neal, but the Divac-Bryant swap brought the Black Mamba to the franchise he would play for his entire career, and it cracked open the door to bring O’Neal along.
The two won a playoff series their first season together and made the Western Conference Finals the second. Two years after that, West added Phil Jackson, the Lakers won their division, and then they beat the Indiana Pacers 4-2 to win the first of three straight championships.
The Kobe-Shaq Lakers were one of the most dominant NBA teams of all time, and one trade was the catalyst
Bryant and O’Neal were teammates for eight seasons. They made the finals four times and the conference finals five times. The pair crossed the 60-win threshold on two occasions and won 54% of their regular-season games.
The Divac for Bryant move is always remembered as one of the great steals of all time. Since it also kickstarted the signing of O’Neal and created an NBA dynasty, West’s deal with the Charlotte Hornets should go down as one of the most influential moves in league history.