Kobe for Vlade: Charlotte’s side of the story, 22 years later

LOS ANGELES - 1989: Vlade Divac #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during an NBA game at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California in 1989. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1989: Vlade Divac #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during an NBA game at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California in 1989. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images) /

On this day in 1996, the NBA was forever transformed when this trade-day deal was made official: 18-year-old first round draft pick Kobe Bryant traded by the Charlotte Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran big man Vlade Divac.

The trade has been analyzed, discussed, critiqued and ridiculed from day one and amplified by the fact that Bryant became one of the best players in NBA history, a transformative star and arguably the player most synonymous with the iconic Lakers franchise.

And the other guy in the trade was Divac.

But ignoring Divac and his impact at the time of the trade and in the future for not only the Hornets but also the Sacramento Kings isn’t fair. Sure, Divac didn’t become a global icon and help lead the Lakers to multiple NBA Championships over the next decade-plus but the trade isn’t as (and wasn’t as) ludicrous as it seems in hindsight.

At the time of the trade, Divac was still only 28 years old and arguably in his or entering his prime. After debuting with the Lakers during the 1989-90 season, Divac became a focal point of the post-Showtime Lakers. Divac, then only two years into the league, played a major role in the Lakers making it to the 1990-91 NBA Finals, leading the NBA in blocks during the playoffs with 41 and finishing second on the team in regular season VORP at 3.3.

Of course, the Lakers went up against an emerging dynasty in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls. Divac never got his championship and the Lakers dynasty effectively went up in smoke.

Still, Divac became a linchpin of the post-Magic Johnson Lakers averaging a career-high 16 points per game in 1994-95. Divac led the Lakers in VORP in 1992-93 (3.3), 1993-94 (3.9) and 1994-95 (5.1). These were obviously lean years for the Lakers franchise compared with their dominant run in the 80s but they were still competent. After missing the playoffs in 1993-94, the Lakers returned to the dance in 1994-95 and actually made a run to the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals, led in large part by Divac.

When rumblings of Divac being traded by the Lakers began in the opening days of the 1996 offseason it wasn’t because the 28-year-old was on the downside of his career. Quite the opposite actually. Divac was an asset. The Lakers were hoping to clear cap space for Shaquille O’Neal, the Orlando Magic free agent who seemed like an ideal fit for Jerry West’s vision of the next great Lakers dynasty. Charlotte sought out Divac and wanted to bring him into the fold. The Hornets were on the verge of dealing away disgruntled star big man Alonzo Mourning and looked at Divac as a piece who would fit.

Charlotte considered four other big men in the 1996 NBA draft: Todd Fuller, Lorenzen Wright, Vitaly Potapenko and Samaki Walker. None of those names appealed to them on the same level as Divac. And they were smart to think that. Divac was better than all four.

Everything was in place for the deal to happen. Charlotte would get the big man they desperately needed to keep their team afloat in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference and the Lakers would get the hot-shot high schooler.

Contrary to popular belief, though, the Lakers didn’t hone in exclusively on Bryant. They obviously loved what they saw in workouts and did everything they could to get their hands on him but Charlotte wasn’t the only team the Lakers talked Divac with. The Atlanta Hawks were also in the mix, according to Scott Howard-Cooper, then of the LA Times.

"The Atlanta Hawks had emerged as serious players in the saga that dragged on, offering a future first-round pick, sources said. The Lakers clearly preferred Bryant, the 17-year-old from Ardmore, Pa., whom they feel has superstar potential, but now they had a backup plan in place should Divac refuse to consent to go to Charlotte and stick with his plan to retire."

The trade agreement went down on draft day with the Hornets agreeing to send their No. 13 pick Bryant to the Lakers for the services of Divac. The only problem was Divac needed to agree to the deal.

He initially resisted and toyed with the idea of retiring. His wife (Ana) was an aspiring actresses and wasn’t in love with the idea of leaving Hollywood for Tobacco Road. Still, when Divac told her he had planned to retire instead of going to Charlotte, she said what any good wife would in this situation: “Are you stupid?”

Divac finally agreed to the trade as the calendar flipped to July. In Charlotte, he would team with Larry Johnson and Glen Rice and try to bring the team back into Eastern Conference playoffs, having missed in 1995-96.

We know what happened with the Lakers. O’Neal came to town, Bryant emerged, titles, the breakup, yeah, yeah. But what about Charlotte? How did the move work for them?

Narrative will tell you it was a disaster and sure, Divac lasted just two seasons in Charlotte before signing on as a free agent in Sacramento. But the deal wasn’t horrible for Charlotte. Divac immediately found himself in a major role for the team playing 81 games, starting 80 and maintaining his steady scoring and rebound numbers. Divac finished second on the team in VORP (4.8) behind only Anthony Mason’s 5.2 (Mason had been traded to Charlotte just days after the Divac/Bryant swap in a deal that sent Johnson to New York).

The new-look Hornets returned to the NBA playoffs in 1996-97 with a franchise-best 54-win season. Ironically, Charlotte was upset in the first round of the playoffs by, who else, but Johnson’s New York Knicks.

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The 1997-98 season saw Divac’s raw numbers fall a bit as Mason and Rice took on larger roles in the team’s scoring, yet, Divac finished a very close second in VORP (3.3) to Mason’s 3.8. This is equally impressive since Divac battled injuries throughout the year playing in only 64 games. Divac also began taking on more of a bench role with the emergence of fellow big man Matt Geiger. For the first time in his career, Divac, now 29 years old, was starting to show his age.

Still, the Hornets returned to the NBA playoffs and made a run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they met with the defending champion Chicago Bulls. Obviously, things didn’t go well for Charlotte. Divac, though, played well averaging 12 points and eight rebounds in the Hornets’ opening round series with Atlanta and 11.2 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in the series with the Bulls.

The Hornets had back-to-back 50-win seasons in Divac’s two seasons with Charlotte. Divac was their second-most valuable player both seasons. To this day, those are the two most-successful seasons in Hornets history and two of their three 50-win seasons over their franchise’s 29 years.

When Divac became a free agent in the offseason, Sacramento came calling. The Kings had just traded for Chris Webber and were eager to bring Vlade into the fold. Divac signed a six-year, $62.5 million deal with the team.

Divac was a major piece in the Kings’ transformative into a title contender with the Serbian averaging 10+ points per game over the next four seasons. More than individual accolades, the Kings became a real challenge to Bryant and O’Neal’s Lakers dynasty. Sacramento made the playoffs in each of Divac’s years highlighted by a Western Conference Finals run in 2002.

So, yeah, Bryant became a legend but Divac should not be have become a punchline. Divac was a valuable asset when the trade went down 22 years ago and gave Charlotte exactly what they were looking for in the trade.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out our NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.