The Detroit Pistons agreed to a trade for Kobe Bryant, but he altered the team’s path

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant nearly joined the Detroit Pistons, who instead traded for Allen Iverson. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant nearly joined the Detroit Pistons, who instead traded for Allen Iverson. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Detroit Pistons nearly landed Kobe Bryant in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. Here’s what happened and how it could have changed NBA history.

Kobe Bryant was nearly traded to the Detroit Pistons in a deal that would have altered NBA history in a significant way. Instead, Bryant stayed with the Los Angeles Lakers sending the Pistons into an eventual decline to mediocrity.

It may be the greatest “what if” in NBA history. The Pistons and Lakers reached an agreement to bring Kobe to the Motor City prior to the 2007-08 season.

Bryant tragically died Sunday in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others. The outpouring of support from the NBA community and fans across the globe has warmed the hearts of many, brought goosebumps and tears as videos and photos are shared.

He will fittingly be inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame this year, as announced on Monday, with his famous Lakers colors. A star that fit in Hollywood wanted to win more than anything. So much to the point that he demanded a trade and nearly became a Piston.

There are different accounts of what the trade would have been. Ken Berger, formerly of CBS, reported that the Pistons would have sent Richard Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and two first-round picks. Though Vincent Goodwill, then of the Detroit News, reported that it was for Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Amir Johnson with a first-round pick.

Detroit was on the verge of become the NBA’s premier dynasty. It compiled a 384-190 record, winning two-thirds of games from 2001-08. It was a run that reached its pinnacle in 2004, hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, followed by a Finals appearance in 2005 and included four other trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Only the San Antonio Spurs (411-163, .716, 3 NBA championships) had a better run during that stretch.

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After consecutive first-round exits in the Western Conference playoffs in 2006 and 2007, Bryant demanded a trade with a rebuild around Andrew Bynum on the horizon. Shaquille O’Neal had won three rings prior with Bryant, but Shaq was entering his fourth year with the Miami Heat, having won a ring with Dwyane Wade.

The Lakers had a trade in place and wanted to act quickly before their disgruntled star carried into training camp. But Bryant had a no-trade clause and owner Jerry Buss had Bryant over for one last meeting in the Hollywood Hills, as Adrian Wojnarowski, then of Yahoo!, detailed.

"The Los Angeles Lakers had found a trade for Bryant, but Buss warned him that it wasn’t to one of his selected destinations.“Detroit,” Buss said."

Buss sold Bryant on being a Laker for life. The Lakers traded for a 27-year-old Pau Gasol and would cement Bryant’s legacy, reaching the Finals the next three seasons, winning two.

Bryant confirmed he wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause in a 2015 interview with Grantland‘s Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose.

"I said, “I gave you a list of teams I’m comfortable being traded to. That wasn’t one of them. So, no.”"

Detroit’s history changed significantly as a result. The Goin’ to Work Pistons core was growing old together and general manager Joe Dumars knew he needed to provide a spark. The season that transpired was the Pistons’ last great season, going 59-23 and landing the East’s top seed. The Pistons lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight year and fourth time in the decade.

Then came the shakeup. Dumars traded Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson. The Pistons made the playoffs in 2009 following a 39-43 season but were swept out of the playoffs. Thus began the downward spiral.

If Bryant had waived his no-trade clause, the “what if’s” would be significantly different. The Pistons would have had a core of Billups, Bryant, Rasheed Wallace and, possibly, Prince. Instead of the Lakers making three straight Finals appearances, the Pistons could have been the team to beat with the man who would go on to win the 2008 MVP award in a Lakers uniform instead of Detroit.

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Bryant, then-29, was still in the prime of his career, coming off back-to-back scoring titles. He gave the Lakers six more healthy seasons before injuries derailed his career. If those six seasons were in Detroit, it could have added several Larry O’Brien trophies and changed the Pistons’ fan base for generations.

Instead of walking around modern-day NBA arenas and seeing Bryant Lakers jerseys, fans would be donning the red, white and blue Pistons jerseys. Fans alike would remember John Mason’s historic introduction of Bryant, such as this one from his final game in the Motor City on Dec. 6, 2015.

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Sports have a way of easing the pain of the worst moments and the Pistons could have lifted the city’s spirits and given a positive light on a rather troublesome situation. Detroit’s popularity would have been one to overcome the financial recession that swept across the country and caused the city to file for bankruptcy. The “Detroit vs. everybody” mantra may be dead as there would be more forever fans because of the success that would have transpired.

Bryant’s “Mamba mentality” would have fit right in with a hard-working, no-quit city like Detroit, which is rebounding from its economic crisis with stunning renovations. But as the city rebuilds, so, too, have the Pistons as a result of Bryant’s decision.

Since the Goin’ to Work Pistons were split up following the 2007-08 season, the Pistons are 372-514 (.420) this season notwithstanding. There’s only been one winning season during that 11-season stretch. Detroit’s best finish in the East is eighth and the Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since 2008.

It leaves Pistons fans wondering, “what could have been.”

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