Mitch Kupchak Q&A: Realistic Expectations For Lakers Future

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed a small group of beat writers on Friday afternoon, 24 hours after the NBA trade deadline. From activity before the trade deadline, to the order of business moving forward, to Magic Johnson recent criticisms of Jim Buss, to Kobe Bryant playing beyond his current contract, Kupchak covered a variety of topics. In our transcription below, Kupchak gives us an inside look into the things at play in the next steps of the Lakers strategy to get back on top.

On Thursday’s NBA trade deadline:

Mitch Kupchak: You know how it played out. We didn’t end up doing anything. There was some activity. When you’re looking to do deals and you’re negotiating, you never really know how close you are, because if it’s a deal that other teams want to make, there may be other teams involved, so you don’t ever really ever know how close you are. But we were in here early yesterday morning working on a couple things, and ready to do a couple things if it progressed, but it did not.

On what Lakers were looking for in a trade:

Kupchak: I don’t want to give away too much…In terms of trades, some of [our] players weren’t even eligible to be traded. You had to get their permission. You had a limited roster in terms of one-year guys, expiring contracts, some limitations…The assets that we do have are financial flexibility this summer going forward, and then the other assets we have, that can be traded, are draft picks. We don’t know if we’re going to have this year’s pick or not right now. Since it’s encumbered, it’d be difficult to trade future picks, so there were, just talking in general, a lot limitations as to what you really could do yesterday, but having said that, there were a couple of things that we were looking at that didn’t come to fruition.

On realistic expectations this summer:

Kupchak: There’s an order. The next order is the NBA Draft. We have to find out if we’re gonna have a top-five pick or not. We have to find out where the Houston (1st-round) pick is, which we know we do have. We may have a very high second-round pick, and then we may have the Clipper pick in the 50s. So that’s No. 1. And then based on what your picks are and who you draft, then you kind of line up what you think you might look to do in the summer. And we have several guys under contract — Kobe (Bryant), Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, (Jordan) Clarkson…and then we have expiring players, some of which have pretty good seasons that will be in the mix.

And then you’re going to have free agency, so it’s kind of premature. Although we spend a lot of time on free agents now, assessing them, ranking them, kind of saying ‘What if?’ That’s not something you start after the draft, I mean we’ve been doing that the whole season. We have a board and all the guys (free agents) are listed, and we’re moving them around, ranking them based on how they’ve played to date. Then we’re going to adjust it because there’s still two or three months left in the season. But you can’t target anybody until you really know how the draft goes. But we’ll be ready after the draft.

On the perception by fans, media, etc. that the team should tank:

Kupchak: I understand why people would say that, but from an organizational point of view, what you’re suggesting is that I go to our players and our coaches and say, ‘Listen, this is the message I want to send.’ I just don’t know how you send that message to a coaching staff or players. It’s just not something that we want people to think that we would do.

On expectations for players and coaches in the final 29 games of the season:

Kupchak: I think both are important. I think it’s important, and I think Byron (Scott) and the staff have done a great job under adverse conditions. I’m not gonna cry about injuries, but we were hopeful certainly that Kobe and Julius Randle would be able to play the full season, and that would be fun. I thought Julius would make us into a 60-win team, but it would’ve been fun to watch him play and develop and get a year under his belt. We did think Kobe would be back and play a full season. Steve Nash, there was always a question mark. He had a great summer. He had a great training camp, but one of the reasons we went out and got Ronnie Price was because we just weren’t sure.

So, it’s important for our coaches to maintain a culture of spirited practices and players playing hard in games. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of our players are on expiring contracts, so they should be playing hard anyway. You would think they would, and if they don’t, then they’re showing you something, and playing hard doesn’t necessarily mean that you go out and play for yourself either, because you don’t want that kind of guy on your team either. So going forward, those are the things we’ll watch with our staff, that they maintain a culture where practices are spirited, our players are continuing to get better, coming in before hours, before practice, after practice; energy working on games; and then watching our players for the rest of the year, as well.

On whether he has talked with Bryant about playing past next season:

Kupchak: No, it crossed my mind when Byron said it, but at this point, it’s really not something that you would talk about. He (Bryant) just had a very complex surgery and is under contract for another year. He has to get back where he feels he can perform at a high level, and that’s like months and months down the road, so to really look beyond that, from our point of view, is not realistic. I think what Byron was saying was, If he didn’t get hurt and he returns to be able to play at that level, then he probably could contribute going forward, but there are too many “ifs” right now for us to sit down and try to predict a plan.

On whether the Lakers plan to make another run deep into the playoffs with Kobe Bryant and how realistic it is to contend for a title in the final year of Bryant’s contact (next season):

Kupchak: That’s our hope (to contend for a championship). It can turn quickly. A lot of it’s out of our control. But I do know if you have picks and you have financial flexibility, there are a lot of ways to improve your team quickly. I can’t sit here and say that, that’s what we’re planning on. We’re going to look to do this the right way, which is to try and make prudent decisions about youth and veterans and making commitments to players under the existing rules.

I’d love to be able to put together a young team that can win 55 games next year, but it’s not that easy. It’s just not that easy. It’s not off the table – it’s our goal. But we want to make sure we do it the right way. This team primarily has been Kobe’s team now for almost 18 or 20 years, and we’re much closer to the end of those 18, 20 years than we are to the middle or the beginning. So, at some point we have to start a new run, and that’s definitely going to include Kobe next year. To jeopardize the next five or seven years, I’m just maybe getting ahead of myself, but by bringing in old veterans that make a lot of money just to win one more year because that’s Kobe’s last year or could be his last year, I’m not sure that fits into doing things the right way.

On Magic Johnson’s recent criticisms and skepticism of Jim Buss’s ability:

Kupchak: I didn’t see all of Earvin’s comments. I have the same authority that I had with Dr. Buss. Jerry West had the same authority with Dr. Buss, and I’ve got that same authority with Jimmy. Jimmy and I work very closely together, and he does not make decisions in a vacuum. For some reason, he gets a lot of the criticism, and maybe that just comes along with a transition from an owner like Dr. Buss, but that’s not fair. Any decision or anything that’s happened in the last two or three years that people have a problem with, I was involved or leading the way. So, if there’s criticism, then it should then be directed at me as well. He is not making decisions in a vacuum. He and I work very closely together. And quite frankly, if it gets to the point where he and I don’t agree, I think he would defer to me, which is pretty much what Dr. Buss would do, although from time to time, Dr. Buss would say, ‘Well Mitch…’ or ‘Well Jerry, I hear you, but we’re gonna do this.’ But most of the time, Dr. Buss and Jimmy would defer to the basketball person.

On whether he feels there needs to be more dialogue between him and Magic Johnson due to his recent comments:

Kupchak: I don’t know exactly what Earvin said, so I don’t want to direct this at Earvin. I’d rather just keep it narrowed into what I just said. I do know that I speak to Earvin on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean once a week. I see him from time to time. We were teammates. As the story goes, he was one of the reasons why I’ve been here for 30 years. We have a very good relationship. Although he’s a baseball fan and he works for the Dodgers, he wants nothing more than this franchise to be back on top.

On how the Lakers game plan differs based on where the first-round draft pick falls:

Kupchak: I’m going out to see games this weekend, but we have a feel of who we think are going to be top five, but some of the guys in this 5-10 (range) may move into the top five and it’s a big difference if you have the number one or you have number five. So, you really have to find out, number one, are we going to get a pick in the top five, and we’re not going to know that until the lottery. And then number two, you really need to know what pick you have. If you have the number one pick, then that certainly changes what you may do during the off-season in terms of free agency. If you draft a big, then maybe now you say you need a guard in the off-season…Right now, we have a feel of who are going to be the top five guys. But, there’s bigs and there’s small forwards and there’s guards, and until you know where you draft, you’re not going to know what player you’re going to get, unless you get number one.

You could argue, for college fans, that there may be two guys that everybody feels comfortable at one and two. So if you’re one or two, then you pretty much know what you might do during the off-season. But, if you’re not one or two, really you have to wait until you find out where you’re drafting, and then you can kind of shape the off-season. But, you may draft a guard in the top five pick, if you get it, but you may still decide to pursue a guard because you’ve used your cap room or you’ve made a trade to get a big, so it’s just too fluid to sit down and say really what you’re going to do today in the middle of February, but those are the factors involved.

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VIDEO: Mitch Kupchak Addresses Media Before The NBA Trade Deadline