- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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ORLANDO -- Although he continues to stonewall specific questions about whether he intends to opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant dropped his strongest hint of the season Saturday that he has no intention of leaving the only franchise he has ever played for.
On the eve of Game 5 in the NBA Finals, one win away from his first championship in seven years, Bryant was asked Saturday if he can imagine playing for anyone other than the Lakers next season.
"No" was Bryant's fast response, accompanied by one of his rare smiles in this series, as part of a media session that was by far his most relaxed and light-hearted in days.
Bryant has two seasons and nearly $48 million left on the $136 million contract he signed in the summer of 2004, after the Lakers lost in the Finals to Detroit and then traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami. But the contract contains an early termination option that would allow him to return to free agency on July 1 and a subsequent player option that would allow him to become a free agent after the 2009-10 season if he passes this time.
Yet it's believed that if Bryant chooses to exercise that option in either of the next two offseasons, it would merely be a step to ensure that his next long-term contract is signed under the terms of the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement, amid a growing sense around the league that owners will succeed in reducing contract lengths and maximum salary levels after the current labor agreement expires during the 2010-11 season.
Unlike the summer of 2007, when Bryant issued multiple trade demands and was openly unhappy about the direction of the franchise until the February 2008 acquisition of Pau Gasol, his future has generated little media discussion this season. That's largely because the widely held assumption among rival general managers is that Bryant has no interest in playing anywhere else now that he is flanked by a big man of Gasol's caliber, with Andrew Bynum also still developing and Lamar Odom eager to re-sign with L.A. this summer when he becomes a free agent.
The leaguewide expectation some two years later is that Bryant will re-sign with L.A. no matter when he returns to the open market. Although he admittedly "deflected" multiple questions on the subject during Saturday's media session -- "I have no idea what you're talking about," Bryant jokingly said when reminded that he has the right to terminate his contract at season's end -- Bryant did add that his looming decision "won't be a topic" after the Finals.
"Won't be an issue," Bryant insisted.
Back in February, when asked about his contract plans by ESPN.com's J.A. Adande, Bryant playfully said: "Don't even go there. No hablo ingles. I'm not going to help you out with that story."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPN.com at the time: "I've always believed that Kobe should and would end his career in a Laker uniform. I believe that to be his feeling as well."
If he declines to use either of his opt-out clauses, Bryant would be a free agent again in the summer of 2011 at age 32, when his current contract expires. The last time he was in that position, in '04, L.A. dealt O'Neal and parted company with coach Phil Jackson after Bryant seriously entertained the possibility of signing with the Los Angeles Clippers and also flirted with the Chicago Bulls.
On the cusp of what would be his fourth championship, Bryant was also asked Saturday whether he's consciously chasing Michael Jordan's six rings with the Bulls.
"I'm trying to get this damn fourth one," Bryant said. "I'm just really happy to be in this moment right now and just trying to get this fourth one."
Bryant and Jackson, who were reunited for the 2005-06 season, have lost in their past two trips to the Finals (2004 and 2008) after combining with O'Neal to lead L.A. to three successive championships from 2000 through 2002.
"I think this one is special because you rarely have the opportunity to get back up to the mountain twice in a career," Bryant said. "In other words, you have your first run and then you hit rock bottom, and then you've got to build back up and get back to the top again. Derek [Fisher] and I both feel very fortunate to be part of something like that. ... The most important thing to me is winning. We put ourselves in a really good position right now, and hopefully we can finish it off."
Jackson, 63, is under contract through next season but has refused to commit to coaching the Lakers beyond that. Odom and Trevor Ariza are the Lakers' foremost free agents this offseason, unless Bryant does decide to join them.
Because he has consistently refused to field questions on the matter, it is not known how receptive Bryant is to the prospect of opting out this summer and signing a long-term deal at a slightly lesser salary to increase the Lakers' flexibility with regard to the luxury-tax line when it comes to re-signing Odom and Ariza.
It also remains to be seen how the prospect of playing for someone other than Jackson -- with current Lakers assistants Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw expected to receive strong consideration for succeeding Jackson when the time comes -- could impact Bryant's thinking.
Team sources say that one reason Rambis turned down the Sacramento Kings' coaching offer this week is the possibility that he will be chosen to take over for Jackson as early as the 2010-11 season.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
8hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann