Jerry West’s credentials as a talent evaluator are as impeccable as his accomplishments as a player. The man whose silhouette serves as the NBA logo traded for Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers, and he then advised the Golden State Warriors not to trade Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, helping mold the foundation of two of the greatest dynasties of this century.
We aren’t so aware of the moves West couldn’t make, but at least one of those was remarkable, too.
In a retrospective of Kobe’s career on the occasion of his double jersey-retirement ceremony at halftime of Monday’s game between the Lakers and Warriors at Staples Center, ex-Lakers coach Del Harris revealed to New York Times scribe Marc Stein that West wanted to add Tracy McGrady to the Kobe-Shaq tandem, but he and then-owner Jerry Buss figured it would delay their title chances.
“I don’t think anybody can look at an 18-year-old and say he’s a Hall of Famer,” Harris told Stein. “You couldn’t even do that with Jordan. And Kobe was a young 18 in his first season. He was still in a pretty normal teenage body, compared to when LeBron James came in and had a man’s body.
“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.”
Bryant’s pre-draft workout with the Lakers at Inglewood High in 1996 is now legendary. West asked former Lakers shutdown defender turned assistant coach Michael Cooper to give a then-17-year-old Kobe the business in a game of 1-on-1, and the GM saw all he needed to see in a span of 30 minutes.
“That was a no-brainer,” West later said of trading Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the right to draft Bryant with the 13th pick in 1996. “We didn’t miss much making that deal if you kept your eye open. He was so skilled. And the intangibles … his work ethic was ridiculous. When we got him, he was just 17. We had to wait for him to turn 18 to sign him. He turned into a generational player.”
So, West considering McGrady’s pre-draft workout “even more impressive,” as Harris told Stein, is quite the endorsement. West made a “brief but serious push to acquire McGrady’s draft rights,” the ex-Lakers coach revealed to The New York Times, but Buss put the kibosh on the deal — and Harris agreed — because they “didn’t want to surrender an All-Star like Eddie Jones for McGrady” for fear pairing two teenagers alongside Shaq “would take the Lakers out of the title mix” in the short-term.
The Lakers reached the Western Conference finals in 1998, the same year ninth overall pick Tracy McGrady was working as a rookie reserve for the Toronto Raptors. Bryant was also still coming off the bench behind Jones in L.A., even though he made his first All-Star Game over the veteran that season.
It wasn’t until West dealt Jones and Elden Campbell to the Hornets in March 1999 for Glen Rice, B.J. Armstrong and J.R. Reid’s expiring contract that the titles started coming. West waived Armstrong that summer, and only Rice won a title with the Lakers, averaging 15.9 points (on 43 percent shooting), 4.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 31.6 minutes over 80 appearances during the 2000 championship run. West traded Rice in a September 2000 four-team trade that returned a 35-year-old Horace Grant.
By 2000, McGrady was already every bit the 32-year-old Rice’s equal, and in 2001 he made his first All-Star appearance, averaging 26.8 points (on 45.7 percent shooting), 7.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and three combined steals and blocks while playing 40 minutes a night for the Orlando Magic. Not too bad.
Think McGrady might’ve helped the Lakers’ title chances in 2003 or ’04, when he led the league in scoring and the Lakers were relying on aging veterans to surround Kobe and Shaq? It probably wouldn’t have hurt to have McGrady operating alongside Kobe in the three years it took the Lakers to bridge the gap from the O’Neal era to the Pau Gasol era, when T-Mac was an All-Star every year.
On the flip side, McGrady’s life likely would not have been plagued by questions about whether he could win in the playoffs if he were paired with Bryant. Of course, T-Mac went on to a Hall of Fame career anyway — another West predilection that turned out to be true. Always trust The Logo.
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