Former Los Angeles Lakers center Vlade Divac stepped down from his job as general manager of the Sacramento Kings on Friday, announcing the move after the Kings officially finished in the NBA bubble and wrapped up their 14th year in a row of not making the playoffs.
Both the franchise and Divac made it clear in their joint statement that this wasn’t an easy decision for either party, but now that Divac is no longer running a (mostly theoretical) division rival, the Lakers really should give him his flowers, because so much of their illustrious history and good fortune would not have been possible without the big man who was once best known for (allegedly) smoking cigarettes in the locker room at halftime of games.
Before he was most recognized for his days as the post anchor for the Chris Webber/Mike Bibby Kings teams, Divac was drafted by the Lakers, and actually played some productive years for the franchise. He made the All-Rookie team during his first season, and helped the Lakers to the NBA Finals. They ultimately lost to the Chicago Bulls, so he never won a ring in purple and gold, but that was hardly Divac’s fault, and he was integral to them winning five more.
Divac went on to play the next six seasons in Los Angeles, and was good and recognizable enough that he was one of the few Lakers to make a cameo in the 1996 classic “Space Jam,” with his presence and charisma on screen surely helping inspire a generation of Laker fans who grew up watching the beloved film. Say what you will, but if not for Divac, the Lakers may not have had an appearance in one of the most well-known basketball movies of all-time.
But shortly after Divac was done capturing the hearts and minds of children with unforgettable lines like “yeah, it could be invasion of body snatchers,” it became clear he had helped the Lakers as much as he could on the court. His skill made him desirable enough to the center-starved Charlotte Hornets that, during the summer of 1996, they were willing to trade the 13th overall pick in the draft to the Lakers after selecting some kid named Kobe Bryant. And who could fault them, right? It’s not like 13th overall picks ever turn out to be one of the best basketball players of all time.
Well, oops, because Kobe Bryant went on to be one of the best basketball players of all-time, and arguably the most iconic and greatest Laker ever. He leads the franchise in total points and nearly every other meaningful counting stat, and helped the team raise five championship banners during his 20-year career. None of it would have been possible without Divac, who at least has been a good sport about it.
But outside of helping them get Bryant, Divac may have never more directly aided the Lakers than he did during Bryant’s quest for his third ring. Los Angeles was on the ropes in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Down 2-1 in a series and trailing in the fourth quarter, throughout their threepeat, the Lakers had rarely (outside of their Game 7 against Portland) been as close to elimination as they were during that game four in Staples Center.
With just under 10 seconds to go in the game, L.A. was down 99-97 to the Kings when Bryant lofted a shot over the outstretched arm of the man he’d been traded for six years before. Divac forced a miss, and valiantly contested Shaquille O’Neal’s put-back attempt to force another brick. Things seemed hopeless as thousands of Lakers fans let out screams of despair, and then, something truly amazing happened.
All of a sudden, the ball was floating out towards Lakers forward Robert Horry, who was in a perfect, almost-predestined spot at the top of the arc, almost like he was meant to be there. Horry caught the ball and fired a shot in stride as two Kings flew towards him, but they didn’t matter. Big Shot Bob did what he always did, and sunk the shot. There was nothing anyone could do.
What does this have to do with Divac, you ask? Well, watch the replay of Horry’s unforgettable shot closely, starting around the 3:08 mark of this video:
There was Vlade, doing what he’s always done: Being in exactly the right place at the right time to help the Lakers. He tried to knock the ball away from Shaq, and in the process, accidentally picked up one of the most important assists in Lakers history. He’ll never get credit in the box score, but that single tip may have changed the arc of the Lakers’ franchise (and put a dagger in the back of the Kings’). Without it, Shaq and Kobe don’t finish their threepeat, and who knows what else would have happened from there?
The Lakers wouldn’t need Divac’s help again for more than a decade, but he stood ready to deliver then, as he always has. Upon his hiring by the Kings in 2015, Divac didn’t necessarily destroy the franchise — how can you kill what is already dead? — but he didn’t exactly help raise it from the ashes, either.
His foibles were numerous — my personal favorite is not stopping a college coach from inadvertently tweeting out the Kings’ draft board — but the most damaging may have been something that can be seen on said board, clear as day: Ranking Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Divac wasn’t the only GM to undervalue the player who might be the league’s next superstar — the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks (via trading the pick) also did — but it’s fair to say that Sacramento likely regrets their mistake most, given the success (to varying degrees) enjoyed by Deandre Ayton and Trae Young, respectively. With all due respect to Bagley, he hasn’t been in that stratosphere, and by passing on Doncic, not only did Divac doom his run with the Kings, but he also kept a generational player from being an issue the Lakers have to deal with in the Pacific division for years to come.
Finally, in his last act to help the team that drafted him, Divac hired Luke Walton, who only days before had mutually agreed to part ways with the Lakers. This likely offset whatever remaining salary the Lakers owed Walton after they parted ways, and (given what has gone on so far in Walton’s tenure in Sacramento) may further keep the franchise down even after Divac is gone. Especially with reports being that Walton is safe for now.
In the 72 years the Los Angeles Lakers have existed as a professional basketball franchise, 444 players have donned the purple and gold. After laying out the facts above, I would argue that few have helped them as much and in as many different ways as Divac has. Now that he’s no longer a King, it’s time to give him the recognition he deserves, and raise him up to the rafters with his fellow Laker greats. With how much of an impact he’s made on the franchise, it’s where he belongs.
The preceding column was (hopefully obviously) mostly tongue-in-cheek. Sorry Vlade. You can follow (or yell at) Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.