Kobe still unsure of post-2016 future

LOS ANGELES -- There was a brief moment when Kobe Bryant believed this season, his 19th in the NBA, would be his last.

It came right after doctors notified the Los Angeles Lakers star in January that he had suffered a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, meaning he'd face another long rehabilitation process for the third consecutive year.

"I was like, 'Jesus Christ, man, I don't know if I can do another nine months [of rehab],' " Bryant said Tuesday before the Lakers' 93-85 win over the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center.

But as Bryant made his first public comments to local media since suffering his injury on Jan. 21, he tried to make one point clear: He'll be back in 2015-16, the final year of his contract with the Lakers, during which he's slated to be paid a league-high $25 million.

"Who the hell said I was retiring next year?" Bryant asked. "There was never a question for me, whether or not I was going to play next year. It was never a question."

Bryant will be 37 this summer and has been sidelined by Achilles and knee injuries prior to this season. If he finishes out next season, could he play beyond that?

"Yeah, I could," he said. "As I sit here right now, do I want to play after next year? No. That could change."

As far as the variables that factor into his decision of playing beyond next season, Bryant said, "It's if I feel like playing, if I feel like doing the process again, if I feel like I'm enjoying getting up and training every single day and that sort of thing. After three years of dealing with this crap, I kind of understand why I don't want to deal with that anymore."

But Bryant said he probably won't know what the future holds for him until next season.

He said he believes his shoulder rehabilitation is more "encouraging" than his other injuries "because I can move around a lot more ... I don't have to lay in bed for a month, two months."

Bryant added that he should be allowed to run in about two weeks and begin shooting in a month or so.

"I can pretty much do anything," he said. "You can't go off of how it feels, you can't go off of pain, because the fact of the matter is, I could've kept playing with a big tear in it, so you can't go off of that.

"You've got to go off of protocol and making sure that those anchors down there are nice and tight. I'm sure I'll get a check-up, get an MRI, get a chance to really see if everything is holding the way it should. I feel fine."

When asked what he would need to do to stay upright next season, Bryant didn't mention the possibility of limiting his minutes or sitting out certain games, such as the front or back end of back-to-back sets.

"Honestly, I don't know," he said. "This shoulder injury is really tough to tell because it's been there for a tough time. It's not like I was playing too many minutes or whatever the case may be or playing too much the year before or whatever that situation is. The shoulder injury has been there for a long, long time. So it's tough to gauge."

He added, "I guess what I'm saying is, after playing so many years, I could play 10 minutes and hurt some other s--t. At this stage, all I can do is do whatever I can to be as healthy as possible and then if something is going to go, it goes. Then it's just, 'Father Time got me' and there's nothing else I can do about it."

Regarding the shoulder injury that sidelined him this season, Bryant said, "Judging by the pain, I've had that same pain in my shoulder since 2001 ... It's been bothering me for a long, long time."

Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol walked away from the Lakers in consecutive seasons, and the franchise struck out on acquiring big-name players last season.

Given all that, is Bryant confident that they can create a contending team during his remaining time with the Lakers?

"As confident as they are in me that I'll be healthy next year," he said. "You've got to trust each other, man. They're going to do their job, do the best job that they can. I'm going to do the best job I can. We'll see how it goes."

However, Bryant said he wouldn't provide the Lakers a list of free agents that they should chase after.

"No, I'm not involved like that -- and I don't want to be," Bryant said. "You've got to give them space and let them do their job. They'll come to me. [Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak], we've had a great relationship in talking. He'll come to me when the time is right."

Is Bryant comfortable leaving the Lakers' franchise if there isn't another player in place that he believes can hand the keys to?

"No, I'd much rather hand the keys over to somebody and let them take this organization right from the jump," Bryant said. "I'd much rather do that. Hopefully we can. But if not, even when I'm retired, that's one of the things that I'll be hell-bent on ... to make sure this franchise gets back to where it needs to be."