In 1996 a pre-draft workout by Kobe Bryant for the Los Angeles Lakers forever changed their fortunes over the next two decades. The unusual aspect lies in the fact their only draft selection was in the 24th slot. Why did they even bother?
Kobe Bryant made such an impression on Jerry West that the Lakers focused exclusively on how to get Bryant rather than their own pick, which turned out to be Derek Fisher.
“Over the years this deal has been well-chronicled, and all signs point to a master manipulation on the part of Kobe, his agent Arn Tellem and then-Lakers general manager Jerry West, who, it’s been widely said, was so smitten with Bryant that he effectively worked in cahoots with Tellem to limit Bryant’s pre-draft exposure to other teams.”
The pre-draft workouts and combines are supposed to give all NBA teams a chance to gauge a prospect’s chances for NBA success. This list of players and teams so far does not include the Miami Heat as of today. While the Heat possess one first-round pick, they also need to evaluate candidates for two-way contracts, the possibility of trading or buying into promising 2nd round pick(s), or moving up in the draft order.
The truth is all talent evaluation personnel aren’t created equal, as the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo shows. Knowledge is power, and when franchises take shortcuts in doing their homework failing grades show up years down the road. Over twenty years ago Jerry West made it his business to find a Bryant as the story unfolded.
“For starters, 12 teams had to pass on him. That’s where West and Tellem came in. Together, they began orchestrating a series of skipped workouts and floating rumors in an all-out effort to deter any and all suitors.”
“They [Lakers] felt like they knew something everyone else didn’t. West had dynastic visions of growing Bryant alongside Shaquille O’Neal, the prized free agent of that summer whom West was intent on snatching from the Orlando Magic. But in order to have the money to pay Shaq what he was clearly going to demand on the open market, the Lakers couldn’t pay Bryant top dollar right away. They had to push him outside the lottery, where they would only have to pay him for that set salary slot.”
“The first pick outside the lottery was the Hornets at No. 13. They needed a center. The Lakers had Vlade Divac. It was the perfect crime.”
Turns out Pat Riley had a hand in how this entire scenario came to bear fruit, since Divac played for Riley as a rookie in Los Angeles. The West-Riley duo brought Divac to the City of Angels in the first place and began the chain of events.
Later in 1995, as a Heat executive, Riley traded for Alonzo Mourning, which created Charlotte’s need for Divac in 1996. Who knows how the Lakers’ legacy would have turned out without Riley’s influence on the franchise?
The entire saga of Jerry West snagging both Bryant and O’Neal in 1996 succeeded far beyond his wildest dreams. Somehow West worked around the fact he had to create cap space for a max contract for the scheme to blossom.
The two-step approach could work for the Miami Heat over two years, because Bryant didn’t become a full-time starter until his third season.
Part one is to focus on getting the best available prospect in June’s draft by exploring all possible options.
Part two lies in signing top-tier talent next summer with available cap space, or this year by swapping out current talent to franchises which need role players with favorable contracts.
What were the keys for the Lakers’ success?
1. Luck. Everything had to work out exactly as planned.
2. Focus on the main thing. Jerry West knew exactly who he wanted and didn’t passively accept whatever draft pick landed on his lap.
3. Preparation. Didn’t skimp on pre-draft workouts or spend time planning for parties, because unearthing one gem now can make a difference years to come.
4. Keep cards close to chest. Loose lips sink ships.
5. Buck convention. Lakers homered with only one max contract and a maximum amount of smarts.