How Kobe and LeBron Would've Worked Together as Teammates

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers match up during the first half at Staples Center on March 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers discovered this summer that there's no such thing as dreaming too big.

LeBron James' ballyhooed appearance at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas—rocking Lakers shorts, no less—proved as much.

But we're taking things a step further here. In the spirit of grandiose hopes, we're daydreaming about acquiring a time machine capable of linking the last Lakers superstar, Kobe Bryant, with the new one, James.

Matt Barnes believes "it would be dope" if Kobe came out of retirement to play with LeBron, per TMZ, but we're more interested in how the two would've played together in their primes. 

What would have happened if instead of Bryant passing the purple-and-gold torch to James, the two could have carried it together?

From the preferred play style and supporting cast to the ideal setting and potential for this theoretical partnership, we're covering all angles of how Kobe and LeBronKoBron? LeBrobe?—would have fit alongside one another.

                

The Setting

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Even though Bryant entered the league seven seasons before James, they shared an overlapping tenure atop the basketball world.

Bryant won his two scoring titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07. James captured his first and only the following season. Bryant's lone MVP award came in 2007-08. The very next year, James started his run of four MVPs in five seasons.

Pairing them together somewhere between 2006 and 2008 is tempting, because both were fully fledged superstars at the time. Not to mention, each was a highlight waiting to happen, so their aerial exploits would have transformed the hardwood into a Cirque du Soleil stage.

But balancing the two alphas back then may have been an impossible task. James was in his early 20s and still establishing his NBA identity. Bryant was feverishly chasing his post-Shaquille O'Neal title and the legacy boost of being the marquee name on a champion.

Skip forward a few years, though, and 2010 looks like the ideal time to bring them together.

That's the summer of The Decision, when James left Northeast Ohio to grow both as a person and a player. He later described his journey away from home as being "like college for other kids." The exit also allowed him to take full control of his career and embark on a championship chase.

While he obviously picked the Miami Heat, there were whispers he had eyes on Los Angeles. Bryant, who had just collected his second straight ring and Finals MVP, surely would have accepted the assistance with his 32nd birthday approaching.

Let's put James and Bryant on the 2010-11 Lakers, then, only with one major change: Phil Jackson can't be the coach. For starters, Jackson's preferred triangle offense would fail to maximize James' talents. Plus, their relationship turned messy before they even had one, so it's probably best to stay away even in the hypothetical realm.

James and Bryant would need a coach they respect and one who is adaptable enough to build a system around their skills. Someone like Tyronn Lue would fit. He was a year removed from his playing career by this point, but he had spent the previous season as the Boston Celtics director of basketball development.

Lue won a ring with Bryant in 2001 and said they shared "a bond that can't be broken," per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. When the Cleveland Cavaliers made Lue their head coach in January 2016, James said they had "been friends since I was 17 years old" but made it clear "he's still the coach and I'm underneath him," per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.

Lue's history with both players gives him the best chance of holding them accountable and actually coaching them. With the head coach in place, our James-and-Bryant-led Lakers need a plan of attack.

                

The System

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

System is a relative term as it relates to players of this ilk. Simpler strategies allow superstars to take over.

"You can drop me anywhere and I'm going to get you 25, 30 points, you know what I'm saying?" Bryant told USA Today's Sam Amick in 2012. "So what offenses do, really, is that it has to be something that helps out the role players more than anything. Because when you look at the star players, the numbers are going to be the same—across the board."

That said, there needs to be some kind of framework to put James and Bryant in the best possible positions.

Ideally, Lue would amalgamate the systems that allowed these players to function at their highest levels.

The base model would be the five-out, position-less style that Lue and Erik Spoelstra both ran with James and Mike D'Antoni used with Bryant. Find enough competent shooters to demand defensive attention at the arc, and the runway is cleared.

Give James a clean floor in front of him, and he'll use his eyes, fakes and scoring/passing threats to have defenders bending and shifting like they're doing a dance routine.

He's both a preternatural passer and a 6'8", 250-pound bulldozer. He has the same number of seasons with 2,000-plus minutes and a 40-plus assist percentage as Isiah Thomas (three) and is the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to average at least 27 points and shoot 50-plus percent for his career.

Bryant, on the other hand, is looking to demoralize defenders with his scoring. He's a more willing passer than some people realize (career 4.7 assists per game), but he's most comfortable shrinking the game to one-on-one battles and snatching the souls of wannabe Kobe-stoppers.

Less than 35 percent of Bryant's career two-pointers came off assists. Even in his final seasonwhen he missed 16 games and had a higher age (37) than field-goal percentage (35.8)he ran the eighth-most isolations in the NBA.

There'd be a "your turn, now my turn" element of this offense, not unlike what James had with Dwyane Wade early in his South Beach tenure. But that's where their different approaches should complement one another.

"He's a passer first, I'm a scorer, I'm a finisher," Bryant said during a 2017 appearance on the Holding Court with Geno Auriemma podcast (via Matthew Moreno of Lakers Nation). "Bron is a facilitator by nature, and I'm a finisher by nature. Those two styles, I think complement each other extremely well."

Some triangle elements could come into play, as Bryant and James are both lethal around the high post. They'd also run wild in the two-man game on the weak side.

Still, the basic idea is to spread the floor with low-maintenance shooters and let the superstars go to work.

                      

The Supporting Cast

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 18:  Shane Battier #31 and Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat gets ready before Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers on May 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN.  NOTE TO USER: User ex
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The first key for a teammate of these all-time greats is the ability to leave any ego at the door. They are the stars, and everyone else is there help them illuminate.

"When you're playing with someone like LeBron, you have to specialize," James Jones, LeBron's teammate in Miami and Cleveland, said, per USA Today's Adi Joseph. "Your ability to specialize allows him to be Mr. Everything. Your willingness to be a specialist allows him to dominate."

The next is having the basketball smarts to execute a given role perfectly.

"In order to win, you've got to have talent, but you've got to be very cerebral, too," James said, per McMenamin. "Listen, we're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?"

The last element is a willingness to empty the fuel tanks during each trip inside the lines.

"[Kobe is] one of those guys that practiced hard every day," Robert Horry said, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "He did his thing religiously."

With those requirements and the championship upside of our fictional 2010-11 Lakers, the supporting cast will be veteran-heavy. These must be players who are comfortable with infrequent touches and capable of adding value regardless of volume—as shooters, as perimeter stoppers, as rim protectors, as cutters, as whatever the situation demands.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Staying in house with the real 2010-11 Lakers, Derek Fisher, Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes would all fit the mold. Fisher owned a career 37.4 three-point percentage. World Peace and Barnes provided toughness and versatility at the defensive end, plus just enough shooting to be serviceable targets on kick-outs.

As for James' 2010-11 Heat, Mike Miller and James Jones could slot in as knock-down snipers, while Mario Chalmers could play behind Fisher as another three-and-D point guard. James' Heat teammates Shane Battier and Ray Allen would be dream gets, just like they were in real life.

If the budget allowed, Chris Bosh would be the ideal center. He could space the floor and defend the perimeter, plus rebound, protect the paint and create scoring chances on post-ups. (Pau Gasol could mostly mirror that list, minus the perimeter switches on defense.) Not to mention, Bosh found a way to thrive as the third wheel with James and Wade in Miami.

If Bosh is too ambitious, a screen-setting, rim-protecting big could make a massive impact. Back then, that probably meant Tyson Chandler on the high end or DeAndre Jordan as a more economic option.

From there, the bench could be rounded out with more shooters, another multipositional defender and a blue-collar big. Sounds like an annual contender, doesn't it?

                                

The Ceiling

When stars join forces, there's always the possibility of early awkwardness.

James, Wade and Bosh had a clunky start to their initial campaign in Miami. Bryant played on two supposed superteams that never clicked—the 2003-04 Lakers with O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton and the 2012-13 group with Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

Chemistry isn't automatic. Success isn't guaranteed.

But there's enough intelligence and respect here to assume they'd find their rhythm sooner than later.

"We've always competed against one another and we always wanted to dethrone each other," James said in 2015, per Tom Withers of the Associate Press (h/t NBA.com). "But we always had that mutual respect because we knew how much we put into the game. I've always voiced my opinion about Kobe, how great Kobe is, and obviously there will never be another one of him in our league. Ever."

This could have been a year-one title team, provided the featured role had balance. Staggered minutes would have been a must, since both men work best when leading the offensive charge. But their ages in 2010-11—Bryant's age 32-season, James' age 26—should have facilitated a fairly smooth changing of the guard.

Bryant and his handful of rings could have led the way early. James, in the midst of his MVP binge, would take control sooner than later.

Leaving James on the same four-year timeframe he had in Miami, this could have been at least a two-title team. Three wouldn't have been out of the question, especially if the Lakers cashed in during that first season.

What would have happened had these two joined forces? Basketball brilliance of the highest order.

             

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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