Rewriting the Past - What if the Charlotte Hornets Kept Kobe Bryant?

At the end of the 2015-16 Lakers season in their game against the Utah Jazz, Kobe Bryant ended his career in the most Kobe way possible, 60 points in 50 shots, making incredible acrobatic layups and deep three-pointers like the Kobe Bryant of old. While this was most certainly a down year for the Lakers at 17-65 this season also capped off an incredible career for Bryant. He finishes third all-time in scoring with 33,243 points scored, the most points in Lakers franchise history, five NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards and one MVP under his belt along with numerous other accolades; all in twenty seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. But, what if twenty years ago instead of dawning the purple and gold he wore purple and teal with the team that originally drafted him, the Charlotte Hornets?

The original trade made by then Lakers’ GM Jerry West was simple, a straight up swap of Bryant for their starting center Vlade Divac. While Divac was no slouch averaging 12.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks, Charlotte would for sure be receiving talent for an unproven seventeen year old fresh out of high school. But, instead of accepting West’s offer for Kobe Bryant then Hornets GM Bob Bass decides to roll with the unproven high school project and the Hornets depth chart would look something like this:

Sitting behind Curry for the season would by no means inhibit Bryant since in his first season with the Lakers he only averaged 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists in only 15.5 minutes a game primarily off the bench. He could easily produce near similar numbers while still developing behind both Dell Curry and possibly even Ricky Pierce for the 1996-97 season for Charlotte. Charlotte would also to expect to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs that season with exceptional play from Curry along with Glen Rice, Anthony Mason and Muggsy Bogues.
The following season in Charlotte Bryant would still be able to produce similar numbers to what he averaged in Los Angeles (15.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists) while still developing behind players like Bobby Phills and Dell Curry and Charlotte would not skip a beat as they would receive outstanding production from the same players as before and new additions like David Wesley and reach the Eastern Conference Semifinals that season.

The 1998-99 season would be huge for not only the Hornets but Bryant as well. After losing head coach Dave Cowens 15 games into the season and falling to a lowly 26-24 and missing the lockout shortened playoffs, Bryant would just thrive in this scenario on a bad Hornets squad. In Los Angeles this year Bryant averaged 19.9 points along 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists and would have easily matched this mark in Charlotte taking over the starting roll over Bobby Phills who only averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists that season.

After taking over the starting role at shooting guard for the Hornets, their depth chart would look like this for the following season:

This squad led by Bryant (22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in Los Angeles) would easily be a playoff threat for the Eastern Conference with Wesley (13.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists), Mason (11.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists), Coleman (16.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists) and Campbell (12.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks) following along Bryant’s lethality. This team very well could have challenged All Star Allen Iverson and his 76ers and possibly then the Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose led Pacers in the following round. (Maybe Jalen would not have “Jalen Rose’d” Bryant in this timeline either!) The 1999-2000 Hornets squad would have been strong and a sign of things to come in Charlotte.

The following season Bryant would have seen similar numbers to his time in Los Angeles with 28.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists especially in scoring after losing Anthony Mason to Miami in free agency and a down year from forward Derrick Coleman. Charlotte would also expect similar results to what actually happened this season by clinching a lower seed, upsetting Miami in the first round, probably beating a solid Milwaukee squad in the second round and then losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference championship by being unable to contain League MVP Allen Iverson.

After a two great and fruitful seasons with his time in Charlotte, Bryant would reach a frustrating point in his career with the swarm, with the team being just good to being a consistent playoff team but not quite good enough to challenge for an NBA Championship. But because of Bryant’s league-wide popularity as the face of the Association, owner George Shin has a change of heart and works things out with the city of Charlotte and the team never moves to New Orleans.

But, the team would eventually bottom out around the 2004-05 season with Bryant averaging near the same numbers at the time as he would have in the Los Angeles timeline (27.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists) and trying to drag a struggling Charlotte team to the playoffs but to no avail with the Hornets missing the playoffs under new head coach Byron Scott. But there is a new light at the end of the tunnel because with the fourth pick in the 2005 NBA Draft the Hornets draft North Carolina’s own Chris Paul. After this the Hornets would look like this the following season:

David Stern and “basketball reasons” cannot stop this possible union of Paul and Bryant and the Hornets squad led by Bryant and Paul would easily become a contender in a weaker Eastern Conference but still would have a tough outing against both Miami and Detroit in the East and San Antonio in the West. And this trend would continue the following season.
But, during the 2007-08 season after the addition of Peja Stojakovic and solid production from David West and Tyson Chandler the Hornets would easily eclipse the Eastern Conference best Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons and would contend and more than likely win Bryant’s first title in Charlotte with being able to easily handle any team in the Western Conference.
The Hornets would then continue to be consistent contenders throughout the next few years behind the excellent play of both Bryant and Chris Paul; repeating again in the 2008-09 season as NBA Champions. But, during the 2009-10 season tragedy befalls the Hornets as Paul tears cartilage in his left knee forcing him to barely play this season and the Hornets finish just outside of the playoffs.

The following season the Hornets decide to shake things up a bit and fire head coach Byron Scott. This move more than upsets star guard Chris Paul and demands to be traded and the Hornets meet his request and trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers, a perennial bottom feeder of the NBA, for an unprotected first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft along with often injured guard Eric Gordon. With Paul out of the picture, Bryant picks up the pieces and averages of 25.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists and under head coach Monty Williams the Hornets finish 46-36 and make it to the second round; where they fall to the newly formed LeBron James Miami Heat squad.

The Hornets will still struggle with the Heat in the playoffs the following season as LeBron will win his second NBA title. Bryant in his eighteenth season will still be a force with averages of 27.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. But thankfully the Clippers bottomed out this season and so happened to win the NBA Lottery, and with it the Hornets are able to select Kentucky phenom Anthony Davis.

With the Davis selection Bryant would be a member of a Charlotte Hornets squad going through a miniature rebuild and will still be a lower seed in the Eastern as Davis grows through his rookie growing pains but still shows tons of potential. But, the Hornets general manager knows that this team has untapped potential going forward and wants to build around Bryant for his final hurrah and in the 2013-14 season the Hornets will look like this:

With this squad, Bryant will arguably play with the greatest Hornets team of all time. Bryant (18 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists) and Holiday (14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists) both remain healthy throughout the season and form a dynamic backcourt and Bryant passes the torch to the Hornets future in Anthony Davis, who doesn’t disappoint with 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots. The bench unit is also lethal with sixth man Tyreke Evans averaging 14.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists and the long range shooting of Gordon and Anderson also provide scoring off the bench for Charlotte. This Hornets squad would easily steamroll through the Eastern Conference and challenge San Antonio in the NBA Finals for the 2013-14 season and win Bryant’s third NBA title in Charlotte. The team would repeat as Eastern Conference Champions in the 2014-15 but would fall to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

Finally, in the 2015-16 season Kobe Bryant announces that after twenty long years in the NBA playing exclusively for the Charlotte Hornets that this season will be his last. And the team does not disappoint as they advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually fall to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a tightly contested seven series. Bryant finishes his final season with averages of 17.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists and his career averages are 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists. Bryant will go down as the greatest Hornet of all time and one of the greatest players at his position ever.

In all seriousness, congratulations to Kobe Bryant for a spectacularly amazing career with the Los Angeles Lakers and all the accolades he has received are beyond well deserved. Most of all there will never be quite another NBA player like him. His scoring, his tenacity, his grit, his fire, his swagger, there is no player besides Bryant's idol and Hornets owner Michael Jordan that can match him. He is without a doubt the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all time and in another timeline Bryant possibly led the Charlotte Hornets to the same level of greatness.


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