Would Kobe Bryant leave Lakers as free agent in 2016?

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Kevin Durant will be a free agent in 2016, when rumor has it he’ll choose between the Thunder and the Wizards. LeBron James will likely hit the market that year as well – though by hit the market, I mean immediately re-sign with the Cavaliers on a max contract as the new national TV deals begin.

Though his impending free agency has gotten less attention, the third of the NBA’s triumvirate of most popular players will also have an expiring contract in 2016 – Kobe Bryant.

Kobe – who signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the Lakers – said he wouldn’t push for a trade as him team struggles. But would he leave in free agency?

Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, who has covered the Lakers since Kobe became a starter:

Knowing Kobe as well as I do, even though he probably doesn’t think this quite right now, when that contract does expire in two years and if he can still play at a high level, then I think maybe he does start to think about ‘Well, the Lakers aren’t a team that can win a championship right now. Maybe I do go check it out.’ I mean, this will be four years at that point where he would not have played in a playoff game perhaps, and to end his career that way would be a little embarrassing.

I definitely think it’s a possibility. I don’t think Kobe is sitting here thinking about ‘Well, what team can I jump to in two years’ by any means. But if the Lakers do not succeed in free agency either this summer or next summer, then think about: What is the reality for Kobe Bryant?

How could the same player who claimed “I bleed purple and gold” consider signing elsewhere?

For one, this is speculation from Ding, but it’s very informed speculation. Also: frustration.

Kobe has played just 10 games for the sad-sack version of Lakers we’ve seen the last two years. It’s much easier to remain patient when you’re removed from the everyday aggravation. As Kobe plays more and experiences loss after loss after loss, he might change his view.

There are a lot of reasons to believe Kobe will remain a Laker for the rest of career – chief among them that his career won’t necessarily continue beyond his current contract. He’ll be 38 in two years, and few players have continue physically at that age.

The Lakers, as their no-negotiation extension offer showed, are also far more invested in Kobe than any other team. There’s an aura around Kobe and the Lakers that wouldn’t exist anywhere else, and it helps the Lakers sell tickets, merchandise, sponsorships and media rights. For both sides, there’s something special the possibility of Kobe retiring as the greatest Laker of all time, and that recognition is harder to gain if he ends his career elsewhere.

But, if Kobe is still playing in two years and the Lakers haven’t turned a corner, I expect him to explore the market. Why not? He’s earned the right – and he has before.

Kobe is loyal to the Lakers, no question. Loyal to the degree he would stay with them forever no matter what? I doubt it.