Kobe: What's the deal?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Can you hear him?

"I'm still frustrated."

Are you listening?

"I'm waiting for them to make some changes."

Do you understand what Kobe Bryant was saying Saturday in an interview with The Times' Mike Bresnahan?

Bryant is still frustrated even though the Lakers have had nearly a month to calm him.

Bryant is still demanding changes even though he knows surgeries to trade-worthy Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom will prevent them from making changes.

Can you hear him?

Kobe Bryant is asking the Lakers to soothe him beyond their ability and trade beyond their resources.

Could it be that he is asking for something else entirely?

Could Kobe Bryant be asking for a trade without asking for a trade?

Sounds like it.

Sounds exactly like it.

Sounds like Bryant heard the expected bad news about Odom, the surprise bad news about Brown, the stunning lottery news that has Greg Oden and Kevin Durant coming to the Western Conference, and he knows.

He knows his chances of winning another championship here during his prime are now officially nearing zero.

He knows that the Lakers' best trade option this summer is now him.

He knows that if he publicly demands a trade, the Lakers would scold him and fans would skewer him.

So he continues to drop little bombs of dissatisfaction like he drops three-point shots, quick and unexpected and chilling.

Bryant clearly stated Saturday that he had not asked for a trade.

But those little bombs have finally backed the Lakers into a corner out of which the only exit is to trade him.

And you know something? It's time. They should do it. It hurts to even write the words. But they should do it.

Bryant is the most entertaining athlete in American sports, a perfect fit for America's entertainment capital.

But Los Angeles is also about winning. And the smart Lakers fans are about winning. And as constituted, the Lakers cannot get past the first round with Bryant, much less win a championship with him.

His high salary keeps them from getting a second superstar needed to win. Poor trades have left the lineup bereft of the top role players needed to win. And with Bryant on the floor, the Lakers will always be barely too good for a lottery draft pick needed to win.

What many fearfully suspected when Jerry Buss handed Bryant the franchise three years ago has been proven true.

Bryant has given Los Angeles fans wonderful moments but, asked to carry an ordinary team, he cannot give them championship moments.

Given his understandable unhappiness, Bryant's most enduring value is now in the players that can be acquired for him.

Bryant began hinting at his unrest during the embarrassing playoff series against Phoenix, when I asked him about his desire to win another championship before age robs his ability.

"We definitely have to get to that elite level, and get to that elite level, like, now," he said then.

After his postseason meeting with Lakers bosses, he spoke again about wanting to be a champion again.

"I don't want to wait any more than I already have," he said.

He drove home from the facility and waited around for good news and what happened? Nothing but bad.

Lamar Odom's shoulder injury was as awful as expected, ending his chances of being an attractive trade commodity this summer.

Kwame Brown's ankle injury is feared to be worse than expected, also probably ending his chances of being traded.

Portland won the draft lottery and franchise center Oden, meaning it could be a playoff team next season.

Seattle won the second choice in the lottery, which it will certainly use on franchise scorer Durant, also changing its fortunes.

Bryant saw all this, knew that the Lakers' immediate future has become even more hopeless, and what did he do?

When Bresnahan contacted him Saturday during a usually calm time in the NBA cycle, Bryant continued to cite his frustration, and continued to ask for change.

Bryant didn't ask for a trade because he is savvy enough to know that such a move would make him a villain again.

Instead, he is seemingly trying to persuade the Lakers to do the one thing they would never, ever do on their own.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak has said hundreds of times that he would never trade Bryant. But if Kupchak thinks he doesn't have a choice?

He could make a deal and hint that Bryant was unhappy, thus relieving himself of the blame. Bryant could -- and would -- nullify his no-trade clause, thus supporting Kupchak's claim.

The Lakers could acquire another superstar and a couple of top draft picks, rebuild the team like it was once rebuilt with Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant, and everyone would be happy.

Kupchak would not talk about such a scenario. In fact, when contacted by Lakers officials on Saturday, the amiable Kupchak politely refused to do any sort of interview on the subject.

He said he had already answered these questions, and he was right.

The problem is, he has no answers.

About Bryant's frustration, Kupchak earlier said, "We feel exactly the same way."

About his off-season plans, Kupchak said, "We're going to be as aggressive as we've always been."

The answer, of course, would be to never trade Shaquille O'Neal, but Kupchak had no choice. If Bryant indeed feels the way he sounds, Kupchak has no choice again.

Critics will wail that it's all so unfair and unseemly. Critics will say that once again, the Lakers are bowing to the mantra that what Kobe wants, Kobe gets.

Only this time, Kobe is right.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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