After disappointing season, Kobe wants changes 'now'

When his season ended in the early hours of Thursday morning, Kobe Bryant squeezed off a couple more shots.

At his own team.

Wearing a white blazer and a look of exasperation, Bryant plopped down behind an NBA TV microphone and tersely spelled out what he hopes to see from his Los Angeles Lakers bosses between now and October.

"Do something," Bryant told reporters in Phoenix, "and do it now."

Something significant on the trade front, in other words, with the Lakers lacking the salary-cap flexibility to chase a marquee free agent like Chauncey Billups.

"Especially for me, it's beyond frustration, three years and still being at ground zero," Bryant continued. "So this summer's a big summer."

It'll be a biggie whether you're sympathetic to Bryant's plight or not, because few teams in the league are likely to be as active this offseason as the Lakers.

After they exited the playoffs in five games this time, only occasionally troubling a Phoenix team it took to seven games in the 2006 playoffs, NBA front-office sources say L.A. is expected to make every one of its players available -- except Bryant -- in an attempt to craft a mix that can return the franchise to the Western Conference elite for the first time since Shaquille O'Neal's departure in 2004.

Here's your first look at what that means for a variety of Lakers:


With Lakerland clearly in need of a hopeful sign or two after this five-game exit in Round 1 and a measly two wins over playoff teams after February, this is the best double-fisted tonic we can offer:

1. In our recent chat with Kobe during this series, he stressed that, yes, he wants to retire a Laker.

2. During that chat, Kobe also disputed the notion that the Lakers will only see the 28-year-old's best for a few more years.

"I think I can play at this level for another six, seven years," Bryant said. "I still have one more bullet to fire."

Translation: Bryant ranks as the game's greatest singular talent while eating pretty much anything he wants. By changing his diet when necessary, Kobe figures he can extend his longevity as an All-Star.

So ...

If Bryant is right, Laker Lovers needn't worry that Kobe's window for winning a championship without Shaquille O'Neal is down to two or three more playoff runs.

The concern, if you want to fret, is Bryant's patience. He will be forever blamed for running Shaq off, even though Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted to trade Shaq more than Kobe and had the biggest say in it, but arguing about that now only distracts from the pressing issue: How much longer can Bryant take mediocrity before he starts to reconsider those plans about retiring in purple and gold?

With four more years left on his contract after this season at a tidy $88.6 million, Bryant does possess the option to re-enter the free-agent market two years from now in the summer of 2009. And surely you heard Bryant's proclamation last week that "we definitely have to get that elite level and get to that elite level, like, now."

Interpretation: He's more than ready for some big-name help and loves the idea of trading anyone necessary to bring in his buddy Jermaine O'Neal, who's said to be just as high on the idea.

Maybe he doesn't trust his teammates as much as he should sometimes, but how far would this group go, realistically, if Kobe trusted them without reservation? Even when healthy -- even had they been able to keep building on that 23-11 start without a flurry of injuries -- these Lakers aren't close to championship material.

That's why the entire NBA expects the Lakers to be trade aggressors now to re-energize their downcast franchise player after passing on a trade for Jason Kidd at the February deadline and unraveling from there.


It's true: Jackson wants to know that he'll have more to work with roster-wise before committing to a contract extension. But the safe bet, according to team insiders, remains that the Zenmeister will consent to tack on at least one more season after next season, which is when he'll complete the original three-year commitment he made upon returning to the club.

Having spent significant time with the Lakers during the playoffs, I can tell you that Jackson doesn't come across as a tortured soul these days. Even though L.A. didn't come close to winning its first playoff series since 2004 or narrowing the huge gap between the team's current standing and winning a 10th championship ring, Jackson understands what he's been working with, talent-wise, for the past two seasons.

Although he's actually absorbed some rare media criticism recently for his inability to halt L.A.'s 12-16 fade after the All-Star break, let's be clear here: Jackson remains the Lakers' only other All-Star. He and Bryant, furthermore, are bonded in the quest to win at least more title together.

So he wants to stick around, provided that the following issues are addressed.

A. Jackson has always been happier coaching veterans and would surely prefer more seasoned role players around Bryant.

B. But health is also a factor. The 61-year-old needs to have his other hip replaced after undergoing replacement surgery on his right hip during training camp. He's expected to complete the second operation shortly after the season ends, to be ready for his Hall of Fame induction in September, but the physical toll can't be discounted.


If there's been a braver player in the NBA this season, I'd love to hear about him. Because I don't see one.

After long-term knee and shoulder injuries -- which followed the unspeakable loss of his six-month-old son over the summer -- Odom just keeps playing on, trying as hard as he can to be Kobe's Scottie Pippen.

He's still not there, agreed, but I don't think he ever had a chance this season. Not after a bad knee sprain in December and definitely not after the shoulder tear he suffered in March, which should have sent him to surgery if Odom hadn't vowed to delay the operation until after the season.

There was also a hyperextended elbow Odom picked up during the Phoenix series, as if the man with the NBA's heaviest heart hadn't suffered enough.

(An aside: The first thing that catches your eye when you walk into the Lakers' locker room is a supersized white T-shirt hanging in Odom's locker, sporting the smiling likeness of his late son Jayden. Basketball might be his sanctuary, but Odom was intent on keeping Jayden's spirit close by even at work.)

Yet in spite of all of his resilience, capped by a 33-point sign-off in Wednesday night's Game 5 elimination, Odom is the first to concede that he's the most likely Laker to move if L.A. has any shot at pairing Jermaine O'Neal or its other fantasy target -- Minnesota's Kevin Garnett -- with Kobe.

There are a couple other Lakers listed below who can enhance a trade package. But with only two seasons left on his contract at $27.4 million, as well as the frontcourt versatility that teams crave in the modern game, Odom is the Lakers' most sellable asset ... since they're not about to move Bryant.

"I love it here," Odom told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times and ESPN's "Around the Horn." "I hope I have done enough to prove that I belong here the rest of my career. But as a team, sometimes you get stuck between a rock and a hard place. We're expected to win, and we haven't won, and they're going to do everything they can to get back to winning."


The 19-year-old was an untouchable in February trade talks, preventing the Lakers from acquiring Kidd from New Jersey. I agreed with the Lakers' logic, too, figuring that a 7-footer this mobile and promising can't be surrendered for an expensive, thirtysomething guard whose arrival wouldn't automatically put L.A. in the West's elite alongside Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio.

However ...

I see it differently now, for at least three reasons.

1. Kidd is an assassin like Kobe. A playoff-tested winner. The Lakers would probably be better with Kidd than skeptics think.

2. The Lakers, by all accounts, could have excluded Odom from a Kidd deal -- as well as an earlier swap that Sacramento backed out of involving Mike Bibby -- as long as they included Bynum. Would you rather start over with a duo of, say, Kobe and Jermaine ... or the trio of Kobe, Kidd and Odom?

3. Kidd, like Odom, is under contract for only two more seasons, so gambling on his ability to stay healthy at 34 and adapt to Jackson's triangle offense is not the sort of risk that would cripple L.A. cap-wise for ages.

Oh, yeah. There's a bigger reason than any of those three: Bryant and Jackson don't appear to be huge Bynum fans. Neither seems terribly excited about waiting for Bynum to develop.

It's a mood Jackson summed up rather neatly when he was asked about an hour before Game 1 if he was "interested" to see what kind of interior affect Bynum could have against the size-challenged Suns.

"Not really," Jackson quipped.

So if you're committed to Kobe and Phil, it makes sense to pursue their kind of players, unless you're certain Bynum is a franchise center in waiting.

The problem? Jerry Buss' son Jim was a driving force behind the drafting of Bynum with the No. 10 pick in the 2005 draft and badly wants to keep his pet project off-limits. If Jackson were to refuse an extension -- or even leave the organization before next season in a worst-case scenario -- this matter figures to be the biggest wedge.


The Smush Parker Experience, you can safely assume, is over. The Lakers need a reliable ballhandler more than anything else and Parker, who was never really starter material, has been clashing with Jackson for weeks, ensuring his exit.

The other lightning rod from Kobe's supporting cast -- Kwame Brown -- is also likely to move on, despite the surprising chants of "Kwa-me, Kwa-me" heard at Staples Center during both of L.A.'s home games against the Suns.

Trading for Brown actually did make some sense at the time because the Lakers badly needed size. Two seasons later, though, Brown remains an injury-prone underachiever ... while Caron Butler has blossomed into an All-Star forward in the East and Washington's foremost tough guy. Worse yet, with teams going smaller and smaller in today's NBA, L.A. probably could have gotten away with playing Kobe, Odom and Butler as a trio more than it might have a few years back.

But it's not Butler's success that makes Kwame's departure inevitable. It's his salary: Brown has only next season left on his contract at $9 million. Any team that deals with the Lakers on a major trade will want that expiring contract.

The Lakers have four free agents besides Parker: Aaron McKie, Chris Mihm, Shammond Williams and Luke Walton. Retaining Walton is the only must, but upgrading the overall talent is the bigger priority, so Walton -- a fine role player who also played hurt like Odom -- isn't put in a position that requires him to be L.A.'s third-best player.

In what Kobe calls Year 3 at Ground Zero, that's what Walton was.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.