In 2019 NBA free agency, the Los Angeles Clippers were able to best the Los Angeles Lakers in the teams’ pursuit of Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers have never had a free agent signing of this magnitude and many believe they’re the favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals. What some may not remember is that they almost had an even bigger move back in 2004 free agency that would’ve came at the Lakers expense as it involved Kobe Bryant
Following the 2003-04 NBA season in which the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals, it was clear the relationship between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had run its course. The two could no longer co-exist and with O’Neal wanting a contract extension and Bryant entering free agency that same summer, the Lakers had a choice to make.
Of course, it is now known the Lakers would trade O’Neal and then re-sign Bryant, but the latter was closer to joining the Clippers than anyone remembers. Former Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler recalled the entire team leaving their meeting believing that Bryant was coming, according to Andrew Greif of Los Angeles Times:
“The deal was basically done,” said Ralph Lawler, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame broadcaster who retired in April after 40 seasons with the Clippers, recalling the summer of 2004. “Within the organization it was everywhere: ‘Oh my god, we got Kobe Bryant.’”
Lawler even went so far as to say Bryant basically gave a verbal agreement to the Clippers during that meeting:
“Kobe turned to him and — this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people — he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’ So he walked out the door and [the Clippers] are all high-fiving each other thinking, ‘By God, we’ve done it.’
This is one of the biggest ‘what if’ situations regarding the NBA in recent history as Bryant going to the Clippers would have changed many things for a number of teams. The Lakers likely would have kept O’Neal, but he didn’t continue at a high level for as long as Bryant did and it’s questionable if the Lakers would’ve added the two more championships that they eventually did.
It also would have raised the Clippers status and truly legitimized them as a franchise and potentially build a roster around Bryant. Could the Clippers have won a championship by now had Bryant joined them?
In the end, owner Dr. Jerry Buss was able to pull his magic and get Bryant to stick around and become arguably the greatest Laker of all-time.
And now, the rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers could be at an all-time high after what happened this summer, but it would have been astronomical had Bryant switched sides 15 years ago.