The Lakers made one of the best trades in NBA history in 1996 – Vlade Divac for rights to Kobe Bryant. Not only did the deal get them Kobe, shedding Divac’s salary helped them clear the cap room to sign Shaquille O’Neal.
But Divac – who’d spent his entire seven-year career with the Lakers at that point – said he nearly blocked the deal from happening.
Divac was in Europe and was stunned when his agent told him about the trade. Days later, Divac said he informed the Lakers he planned to retire, which would have prevented the team from trading him for Bryant.
“It felt like someone from behind hit me with a hammer,” Divac told Yahoo Sports. “It was the first time in my career that something happened in a way I didn’t plan. I was devastated. I was thinking, ‘I play basketball for fun.’ My father said when I brought my first [basketball paycheck] back home, ‘Who gave this to you? Are they crazy? Do they know you would play basketball even if they don’t pay you?’
“I am not going to play basketball because I have to play. I am going to play for fun. I was 28. I am not going to go somewhere and be forced to play basketball. I told my agent that I am not going to Charlotte. I loved L.A. I loved the Lakers. For every kid that played basketball, it was basketball heaven being with Magic and the other guys.”
A meeting with Jerry West changed Divac’s mind, and he played a key role on two 50-win Hornets teams. Divac then signed with the Kings and became an All-Star for a team that repeatedly advance in the playoffs. He returned to the Lakers to play with Kobe and finish his career. Things didn’t turn out so bad for him.
Nor the Lakers, obviously. They won three championships with Shaq and Kobe and another two with Kobe after trading Shaq.
Even the Hornets fared OK with the veteran Divac helping them make their first back-to-back playoff appearances in franchise history. Of course, they’d rather have Kobe in hindsight, but they at least got the immediate help they sought.
But what if Divac had retired?
First of all, it depends when he would’ve done it. The trade was agreed upon before the draft but executed afterward. If Divac retired after the draft, Charlotte would’ve been “stuck” with Kobe. If Divac did it before the draft, who knows where Kobe would’ve been picked? Agent Arn Tellem was trying to steer Kobe to the Lakers, and we know they found a path through Charlotte. But if the Lakers couldn’t have dealt Divac, how were they going to get Kobe?
Either way, Divac’s retirement would’ve taken his salary off the books and allowed the Lakers to sign Shaq. As Kobe was just a relatively unknown prospect coming out of high school, I doubt his presence affected Shaq’s desire to go to Los Angeles. Shaq could’ve been trying to jumpstart a dynasty without the league’s best shooting guard at his side.
I’m fascinated by these what-if scenarios, though I doubt this one came too close to fruition. Many players consider dramatic steps like retirement when traded. They extremely rarely follow through.