The Los Angeles Lakers teams that former general manager Jerry West built around Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are among the best in NBA history. Because of the success they had, it’s hard to imagine that they could have featured more star power.
But according to former Lakers head coach Del Harris, that’s exactly what almost happened, as the team briefly considered trying to trade for a rookie Tracy McGrady.
That might sound impossible now, and it might have been, but as a rookie out of high school McGrady hadn’t yet displayed the type of potential that would later make him a scoring champion and dark horse MVP candidate later in his career with the Orlando Magic.
McGady has called Bryant the greatest player he ever faced, but what if they never did? A young McGrady and Bryant would have made for one of the most terrifyingly talented and rangy wing combinations in NBA history had both developed in tandem as they did on their own.
Harris explained to Marc Stein of the New York Times what prompted West to consider trading for McGrady:
“McGrady came in the next year with a more mature body and worked out so well that Jerry kind of tooled around with the idea that maybe we should just go ahead and make a deal for whatever it took to get this guy — even though it’d be a step back in the short term — to have two guys like this on the same team.”
McGrady averaged seven points in just over 18 minutes per game as a rookie during the 1997-98 season for the Toronto Raptors. Thus, it’s easily to surmise the Lakers probably would’ve taken a brief step backward had they parted with the types of assets necessary to get either Toronto’s ninth overall pick they used to select McGrady, or an earlier choice to swoop him out from under them.
Hindsight is 20/20, but in retrospect that step back probably would have been worth it. No one can say with certainty how Bryant and McGrady developing alongside each other would’ve affected their growth trajectory.
Or if team chemistry would have been adversely changed by the brief step backward to take 20 steps forward, but Bryant and McGrady playing together would’ve been unstoppable once both began to hit their strides.
Not only were McGrady and Bryant two of the best scorers to ever play in the NBA in their primes, they were also stout defenders when it suited them, and with each taking a bit of the scoring load off of each other they could have devoted more energy to using their length and smarts to disrupt opponents.
Alas, we’ll never know how things would’ve worked out had West made the type of move normally only seen in NBA 2K simulations. But it’s crazy to think about the alternate universe where the Lakers won six straight titles with O’Neal, Bryant and McGrady terrorizing the league and re-inventing the concept of a superteam.
It also emphasizes how incredible it is that the Lakers were so good anyway they won three straight anyway without making that move.
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