Kobe pleased with Lakers' progress, says he wants to stay put

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant made clear Monday what's been, at the very least, a bit ambiguous for nearly a year: He "absolutely" wants to stay with the Lakers and is open to finishing his career with them.

This, after questioning the direction of the franchise during the offseason and criticizing the job performance of general manager Mitch Kupchak.

"I've always wanted to be here," Bryant said the day after the Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 128-114 in their playoff series opener. "I just felt like I was in a position where I didn't really have a choice. They wanted to go in an opposite direction. My legs aren't as young as they used to be. Just let me know.

"I love the weather. I love my '63 drop-top Impala. I love the 405 [freeway]. I love my guys."

Bryant acknowledged he wouldn't have imagined things would have turned out this way late last May, when he publicly called the Lakers' front office a mess and demanded a trade, feeling he had been misled when he signed a seven-year, $136.4 million contract in July 2004. The Lakers haven't won a playoff series since.

"I've been sitting on this for four years now," he said. "After three or four years of not getting anything done, to see it today, it feels pretty damn good. It's been a hell of a ride."

As far as Kupchak goes, Bryant said his GM has gone from an "F" to an "A-plus."

"He believed in the draft picks he made, he had the patience," Bryant said.

Among the picks who have made significant impacts since Shaquille O'Neal was traded following the 2004 season are Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf.

And this season, there were the trades for Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol. Ariza hasn't played since breaking his foot Jan. 20, but Gasol has been brilliant.

"I just think his skill set at his size is unmatched in this league," Bryant said of Gasol, who had 36 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists against Denver in Game 1.

Bryant said he didn't know if he thought he helped push Kupchak into action.

"Maybe. It takes pressure sometimes to make a diamond," Bryant said with a smile. "In hindsight, yeah, that was my strategy. I'm going to get my Phil Jackson on and say I planned it all along."

Bryant had harsh words for Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Kupchak last spring.

And now?

"Nah," he replied when asked if there were any lingering bad feelings toward anyone in the organization. "On the serious side, I learned a lesson, which is you have to separate business from the love of the game because there were a lot of decisions that were made business-wise that I wasn't happy with. I took a lot of the blame for a lot of the stuff they were doing. It didn't sit right with me. It still doesn't sit right with me. But you have to be able to separate that from the love that you have for the game of basketball and the respect that you have for your team."

Bryant and Buss met in Barcelona a few weeks after his trade demand, and he again told Buss he wanted out. Then, understanding the difficulty of trading someone of his ability, Bryant said all the right things entering training camp in October, but the peace was broken a few weeks later when Buss said he would "certainly listen to trade offers."

The situation was tenuous at best when the season began, and stories circulated throughout November concerning potential trade possibilities. The speculation stopped, Bryant stayed and the Lakers flourished, going 57-25 to earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

The 29-year-old Bryant, a leading candidate to win his first MVP award, has stated on several occasions that his 12th NBA season has been the most enjoyable, and did so again Monday.

He said he hasn't necessarily changed his mind about wanting to stay instead of wanting to leave.

"No, I just don't talk about it," Bryant said. "These are answers I've given all year long. I love this team. If they want to win right now, I'm all for them. That's all I've said the whole time. We have a job to do here, so it's important to focus on what we're doing and not get distracted from that.

"I don't want any big stories. The journey we've been on is fun. It's been a blast. With that being said, we play for titles. We want to win the championship. We'll be disappointed if we don't. But if it does happen, we'll regroup and go at it again. We've got some great pieces here. Now it's time to put it all together. We get that big fellow [Bynum] back down there and we'll really be rolling."

Bynum, though, appears to be a longshot for the playoffs. His left knee isn't 100 percent, and Jackson said his chances of playing this postseason are "remote."

Bryant is under contract through the 2010-11 season, but can opt out after next season. He said he hasn't thought about that. He opted out four years ago before signing a new contract.