Phil Jackson, through Today’s Fastbreak’s Charley Rosen in the latest edition of “The Phil Jackson Chronicles,” revealed a bit of history that could have happened but never did. Jackson considered, albeit briefly, a swap which would have sent Kobe Bryant to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Grant Hill early in his career:
“A couple of weeks later, we’re still winning and Shaq is completely motivated. But Kobe was only averaging about 19 points per game. So Kobe called Jerry West and wanted to know how Jerry and Elgin Baylor both averaged 30 points. Kobe also said that he wanted to be traded. Of course, Jerry told me about the conversation. And, for a few minutes I thought about taking the Pistons up on an offer they made to trade Kobe for Grant Hill. Make that a few seconds.
“The thing was that Kobe already saw himself as being one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. I thought that, in time, he would indeed reach that goal.
There is so much to digest in this, but think about how this would have affected NBA history. As things worked out, the Lakers went on to win the next three NBA championships. The other team that would have been involved in that trade, the Detroit Pistons, beat the Lakers in 2004, although Hill of course wasn’t on that team.
Hill, at the time of this trade being discussed, was the better player, or at least as good:
And if you’re more of an advanced stats guy, here are those numbers:
And you could make an argument that being the more selfless one as well, Hill would have been a better fit in Jackson’s triangle offense than Kobe was. Honestly, Hill would have been an amazing fit in the triangle. At the time he was a better shooter than Bryant with more of a team mentality.
One of the great things about the Rosen piece is that it shows how the Bryant/Jackson relationship evolved over time. While it ended on good terms — Jackson even uses the word “collaborative” to describe it during the second championship run — it did not start well.
And maybe in an alternate universe, Hill doesn’t wreck his career by playing through an ankle injury. It’s not that far-fetched. Hill thinks a misdiagnosis ruined his career. He spoke to Jason Whitlock on it years ago:
“I (had been) told everything was fine. I even found out that certain team doctors were questioning whether I was really hurt, thinking I was soft or whatever. This was after I had pulled myself from Game 2 against the Heat. At that time, when I found out I had broken my ankle, as crazy as this sounds, I was relieved. I finally had some confirmation, I finally had proof that I’m really not making it up.”
Maybe he doesn’t break his ankle. Maybe even if he does, he doesn’t play on it. Maybe Hill doesn’t get hurt right in the middle of his prime. And maybe a Hill/Shaquille O’Neal partnership has less tension than a Kobe/Shaq one — and perhaps they win more rings because of that.
On the other end, what becomes of Bryant in Detroit? That’s another equally fascinating question. Does he move to small forward? How would he have gotten along with Jerry Stackhouse? And would he have been able to fit into the team mentality that was largely responsible for the Pistons’ title in 2003-04? Can you imagine Bryant and Rasheed Wallace as teammates? That would have been…combustive?
Or maybe Bryant leads the Pistons to more than one Finals as the Eastern Conference’s best player through the early part of the decade and collects more MVPs than he did in his career.
Whatever you think would have happened, this certainly races up the charts as one of the great “what ifs” in NBA history.