Would Kobe consider retiring early?; Mailbag: Knicks trade, Nets and more

Kobe Bryant has struggled mightily this year, but sources around the NBA believe he'll ride his final season out.
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On Wednesday night, over 36 grueling minutes, Kobe Bryant was, for one night, Kobe Bryant. Shots were falling (10-of-24); three-pointers (4-of-11) too. Bryant’s 31 points were a team high for the Lakers and his two clutch jumpers in the final seconds sealed a (rare) L.A. win.

Has Kobe turned the corner? Probably not. Bryant’s shooting percentage (41.7%) matched a season high but his 50 shots over the last two games are staggering. On Tuesday, in a homecoming of sorts against Philadelphia, Bryant was a ghastly 7-of-26 in a loss to the Sixers. Attempts that should be going to Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are being gobbled up by Bryant, who is desperately trying to will his game back. 

It makes you wonder: How long can this continue? The Lakers are 3-15, in the middle of an eight-game road trip and have not played a single game against the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers. If the Lakers' season continues this way—and there is little reason to believe it will get much better—how will Bryant handle it? Could Kobe walk away before the end of the season?

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Highly doubtful, at least according to three longtime rival executives interviewed by SI.com. All three acknowledged the obvious: The Lakers are likely to be historically bad. “There doesn’t seem to be any structure there,” said one exec. “Kobe’s going to do him; there’s no stopping that. Randle and Russell have a chance to be OK, but they aren’t real difference makers this season.” Said another, “Put it this way—I’d be shocked if they lost their (top-three protected) pick.”

There was a consensus on Bryant, too. His competitiveness won’t allow him to quit before the end of the season. “There’s a part of Kobe that still believes, even now, that he can be play at an All-Star level,” said the first exec. “He can’t shake that. It’s in his DNA.” And as much as Bryant loathes a Derek Jeter-like farewell tour, bailing on his team in the middle of an ugly year would be out of character. “Say what you want about Kobe, but he’s going to fight until the end,” a third exec said. “He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen.”

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One scenario: If the Lakers are floundering at midseason, Bryant could find himself on the injury report for extended stretches. Better, perhaps, to nurse a nagging injury than struggle night after night in a losing cause. Because heartening as it was to see Kobe rediscover some of his old brilliance against the Wizards, the ravages of time and injury are likely to make those nights few and far between. 

And now, onto a few of your tweets...

I would have bought this last year, when the Knicks were rudderless, running a vague version of the triangle and Kobe was healthy and staring down two straight seasons of mediocrity. But the Knicks are in a better place. They still struggle with the triangle—Bryant recently referred to it as a square—but the emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has sparked optimism for the team that hasn’t been felt in more than a decade. If the Lakers were giving away Bryant (and, just as important, if Bryant wanted to go), I suppose Jackson would take him. But this Knicks team is strong enough to make a run at a playoff spot this season and is eager to continue the rapid development of Porzingis while doing it. 

I’ve never been a proponent of tanking, but a horrifically bad season is exactly what the Lakers need. Russell is going to be OK. Anyone that watched him at Ohio State last season—where he shared the point guard duties with Shannon Scott—knew any team that drafted him was playing the long game. He is blessed with incredible court vision but he is an inexperienced playmaker being thrust into the NBA’s most complicated—and star loaded—position. And Randle, at the very least, is going to be a solid scoring power forward. 

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What the Lakers need is a star, an alpha male... a Ben Simmons. Sure, every team would like Simmons; he’s as close to a sure thing as there is right now. But toss Simmons into that mix and the Lakers suddenly have an enviable young core, not to mention a boatload of cap space to flesh out the roster. So as bad as things are right now, if the ping pong balls fall the right way next spring, things could improve pretty quickly. 

I doubt the Nets would trade Lopez. He’s healthy, and while’s he’s had a few ups and downs in the first month of the season, he’s one of the most reliable scoring centers in the league. Lopez told me recently that he asked the Nets to cool it on the trade talk after re-signing last summer, and while the Nets could ignore the request, I think Brooklyn is inclined to keep him around. 

Young? I don’t think the Nets would be afraid to move him. That’s not a knock on Young; he was very good in November and his skill set seems to complement Lopez well. But the Nets have to think long term. With Boston gobbling up its picks over the next few years, Brooklyn has to be opportunistic on the trade market. If Young could fetch a decent first round pick and another player, the Nets would have to at least consider it. 

I look at Lopez as being a nice centerpiece to build around; he’s not a No. 1 option on a contending team, but he’s a solid No. 2. The Nets—like every team with cap space—will make a run at Kevin Durant in the offseason and will try to pry Mike Conley out of Memphis. Lopez would work alongside either of them. But the Nets are more than one or two players away from contending and badly need an infusion of quality young players on the roster. To get them, almost everybody should be on the table.