HE CAN’T WAIT
The Lakers rolled uneasily through their final day of exit meetings, as Kobe Bryant reiterated his increasing frustration and General Manger Mitch Kupchak suggested that only one player was considered untouchable for off-season trade talks -- the same player prodding upper management to improve the team.
Still simmering after the Lakers’ first-round loss to Phoenix, Bryant voiced another degree of dissatisfaction during meetings Friday with Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson, an unhappiness he later repeated publicly with such firmness that it made his blunt postgame appeal Wednesday (“Do something, and do it now”) look like a minor request.
“I just told [Kupchak] this summer’s about getting us to an elite level, doing whatever it takes to make it happen,” Bryant said. “This is a competitive city. We’re used to winning titles, not just winning games and being in the first round. We want to win championships. Now’s the time.
“That’s one of the things when I re-signed here, they promised they would build a contender and build a contender now. I don’t want to have to wait any more than I already have.”
The Lakers haven’t won a playoff series since beating Minnesota in the 2004 Western Conference finals.
Bryant, who will turn 29 in August, has a no-trade clause in his contract for at least one more season and remains the franchise’s cornerstone, which means the Lakers will try to surround him with more talented pieces. He has four years and $88.6 million left on his contract but can terminate his deal after the 2008-09 season and leave two years and $47.8 million on the table, an unlikely event.
Kupchak, asked if every Laker was available in trade talks this off-season, singled out the one obvious selection and left others unmentioned.
“We’re going to build the team around Kobe,” Kupchak said.
That left 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum and oft-injured but productive forward Lamar Odom on the unprotected list.
It won’t be easy to change the look of the Lakers, even though Bryant said his patience was currently “about as short as my 1-year-old daughter.”
If the yet-to-be-determined salary cap is placed at $55 million next season, the Lakers would already be $3.4 million over it, meaning the only notable free-agent tool at their disposal would again be the mid-level exception, worth about $30 million over five years and offered to all teams that are over the salary cap. (The Lakers can sign free agent Luke Walton without affecting their cap status.)
In other words, the Lakers can make drastic steps only via trades, which means Kupchak could have a busy off-season.
“We understand there’s no magic wand you can wave and make things happen,” Kupchak said. “But we’re going to be as aggressive as we’ve always been to get this team back to championship-level basketball.”
Kupchak also acknowledged Bryant’s frustration.
“I don’t think anybody who’s been with this organization -- the Buss family, myself, Phil -- feels any different,” Kupchak said. “We feel the exact same way. Being in the first round or losing in the first round is not what we want to accomplish. We feel that we owe and want to provide more to the city than that.”
Adding to the tension is the fact that Bryant isn’t getting any younger.
“Obviously there’s a window,” Bryant said. “I feel fine physically. The important thing to me is winning now. It’s not waiting, this, that and the other....
“I don’t play for anything but a championship. I want to get into the pocket with this city, where we, going into the season, believe that we have a shot at winning this whole thing.”
Bryant couldn’t predict whether big-name players such as Jermaine O’Neal or Kevin Garnett could be acquired by the Lakers during the off-season.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just voiced my opinion. Now it’s on them to do their job and go out there and try to make something happen.”
Regardless of what happens, Bryant said he could not contemplate terminating his contract in two years.
“I’ve been a Laker fan my whole life,” he said. “I hate to even think about me going someplace else.”
Neither Odom nor Bynum wants to leave the Lakers.
Odom answered in the affirmative when asked if he expected to be back next season: “Yeah, definitely, in a Laker uniform. This is the team I want to retire with, raise my family here.”
Bynum, who turns 20 in October, plans to attend a camp for post players this summer and also take college classes in math and English at either Loyola Marymount or UCLA. He acknowledged there would be new faces on the team but also said, “I just hope to see my face on the team next year.”
Smush Parker’s two-year tenure with the Lakers has basically ended.
“We were very point-blank with Smush in saying, ‘Hey, we know we have to go in another direction at this position. We have to get better at this position,’ ” Jackson said. “At this point, I would say that Smush is not someone that we are going to actively seek out to come back and play with us.”
Jackson probably will undergo surgery to replace his left hip this month. He had the same procedure on the other hip last October.
Jackson, 61, lamented not being at full strength at times this season.
“I felt that this group of young men took advantage of me in situations where I wasn’t on the court and as aggressive as I could be,” Jackson said.