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Lakers' Kobe Bryant uncertain he'll play beyond next season

'Do I want to play after next year? No. That could change," Kobe Bryant says of his future with Lakers

When Lakers guard Kobe Bryant returns next year from a shoulder injury, he'll enter his 20th season in the NBA.

Is it a sure thing he calls it quits after that season, presuming he can return to health after three straight years with significant injuries?

"As I sit here right now, do I want to play after next year? No.  That could change,"  Bryant said at Staples Center on Tuesday night, before the Lakers (16-46) hosted the Detroit Pistons (23-39).

Bryant was sidelined after playing 35 games with a right torn rotator cuff, after averaging 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.  He underwent surgery in late January.

Last season Bryant suffered a knee fracture.  Before that he tore his Achilles' tendon.

"After three years of dealing with this crap, you kind of understand why I don't want to deal with it anymore," he said.

"This is much more encouraging [than the Achilles' tear]," said Bryant, who said he expects to start running over the next two weeks.  "I can move around . . . my spirits are much higher."

Bryant also said there is no question he'll play next season, although the thought of early retirement crossed his mind upon learning he'd be out for roughly nine months after shoulder surgery.

"As soon as the doctor told me," Bryant said of his reaction.  "I don't know if I can do another nine months.  This is crazy."

But Bryant is past the initial shock and sloughed off any notion he'd walk away from the game until after next season.

"Who the hell said I'm retiring?" he asked.  "It was never a question of if I was going to play next year."

Bryant isn't sure how many minutes or  games he'll be able to manage next season.  The goal is to get as healthy as possible for training camp and see what comes.

With the recent spate of injuries, Bryant is fatalistic about the future.

"If something is going to go, it goes," he said.  If he goes down again then, "Father Time got me, there's nothing else I can do about it."

The decision to retire might not come until the end of next season, depending on what he wants to do at age 37.

Bryant also noted his shoulder is already greatly improved, but he still needs to go through the rehab process.

"You can't go off of how it feels.  You can't go off pain, because the fact of the matter is I could have kept playing with a big tear in it," said Bryant.  "It's been there for a long time.  It's not like I was playing too many minutes."

So when exactly did he tear his rotator cuff?

"Judging by the pain, I've had that same pain in my shoulder since 2001," said Bryant.  "It's been there for a while."

Coach Byron Scott requested Bryant be present at home games, watching from the team's bench.

"[I'm] a source of comfort for Byron.  Everybody needs a shoulder now and then," said Bryant.

He has only one healthy shoulder to give his former teammate.

Bryant is expected to spend some time this summer working out with Julius Randle, the team's rookie forward who broke his leg on opening night

Bryant and Scott played together on the 1996-97 Lakers, when Randle was 3 years old.

Before he goes, Bryant hopes to see the Lakers transition to the player who will lead the franchise back to a championship.

"I'd rather much rather hand the keys over to somebody that can take this organization right from the jump," Bryant said.  "But if not, even when I retire, that's one of the things that I'll be hell-bent on with [owners] Jeanie [Buss] and Jimmy [Buss], to make sure this franchise gets back." 

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus

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