Los Angeles Lakers

What if Kobe Bryant came out of retirement to play with LeBron James?

What if Kobe came back?
What if Kobe came back? (Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Kobe Bryant said he'll "think about [coming out of retirement]" to play with the Los Angeles Lakers if they go 0-5 to start the 2018-19 season.

He was joking, of course, but that won't stop us from wondering what the Lakers would look like if Kobe did come out of retirement to team up with LeBron James.

MORE: Kobe's head-to-head history against LeBron, Jordan and other stars

Any Kobe return would be all about managing expectations. When Michael Jordan returned for his stint with the Washington Wizards, he was a year and a half younger than Kobe is now but had played seven fewer seasons and nearly 14,000 fewer minutes. While it's true that few players Kobe's age have ever averaged as many points as he did in his final season, it took him 16.9 field goal attempts to score 17.6 points per game, ranking him 113th among the 117 qualified players that season in points per shot.

The 3-point shooting would be the greatest concern when evaluating Kobe's fit on these Lakers. Kobe attempted a career-best 7.1 3-pointers per game in 2015-16 and made just over a quarter of those opportunities. He was slightly more efficient on catch-and-shoot looks, but not to the point where defences had to stay glued to him off-ball.

Shot Type Frequency 3PM 3PA 3P%
Catch-and-Shoot 22.4% 1.2 3.6 32.4
Pull-Up 17.0% 0.7 2.8 24.6

For a player who dominates the ball as much as he does, surrounding LeBron with some combination of Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson and Kobe in the backcourt would hurt the team's spacing in a big way. It's not as though the Lakers are currently loaded with shooting at other positions, either.

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Sure Not Now

The only hope would be that playing alongside LeBron would make Kobe's life far easier than it was in his last season - and it would. The Lakers were a young team in 2015-16, with a 23-year-old Jordan Clarkson, a 21-year-old Julius Randle and a 19-year-old D'Angelo Russell soaking up most of the minutes. Los Angeles lacked playmakers outside of them, Lou Williams being the only one who could create consistent shots for himself and others.

It manifested in Kobe leading the team in usage and field goal attempts (most of which were tightly contested), a less-than-ideal combination for someone in their 20th season who had racked up as many injuries as he had down the final stretch of his career.

If he were to return now, Kobe would likely come off the bench and be more of a specialist rather than a primary option, a move that would make him a more efficient scorer considering he'd have LeBron, one of the greatest passers of all-time, feeding him the ball.

In general, it would mean a lot less of this:

And a lot more of this:

Kobe would also benefit from going up against weaker defenders on second units as opposed to starters. As much as he struggled with efficiency, there was still a lot of vintage Kobe in his game in 2015-16, particularly from midrange. Being able to create his own shot off the dribble helped him finish behind only 10 players in points scored in isolation that season, as well as the top half of the league in pick-and-roll and post-up efficiency.

Kobe's comfort on the block would probably be his greatest asset now given how frequently the best teams in the league switch on defence. With Brandon Ingram, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson being Los Angeles' best 1-on-1 scorers outside of LeBron, it wouldn't hurt having someone else who could attack a mismatch with their back to the basket, both as the primary or secondary ball handler in bench-heavy units and as the secondary or tertiary option with the starters.

Despite not having the same lift anymore, Kobe will always be able to create separation with his patented fadeaway.

That would at least give Kobe a blueprint for success if he were to come out of retirement for one more run. It wouldn't be seamless, but teaming up with LeBron would give him an opportunity to pick and choose his spots in ways he couldn't when he went on his farewell tour. He'd be able to spot-up around the most dominant player currently in the NBA and take some of the playmaking pressure off of his shoulders by doing what he always did best.

Another reason for optimism: Kobe would be able to be more selective with when he plays. Having already said his goodbyes to every team in the league, he'd be able to play only when needed, which would help keep him fresh for the entire season. While he still wasn't the most efficient scorer, Kobe was a different player in his final season on multiple days' rest.

Not that Kobe is going to follow in the footsteps of Jordan by announcing he's back, but we can dream.

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