Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak says Kobe Bryant is worth it

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has no regrets about Kobe Bryant's huge extension, despite injuries and losses

Kobe Bryant was all smiles when he talked about his $48.5-million contract extension in November 2013, saying he would "run through a wall" for the Lakers to prove they were right and everybody who doubted them was wrong.

But were they right?

It's a simple question that goes directly to the center of a struggling franchise and its rapidly aging megastar.

"One hundred percent. We have no regrets at all," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday.

Why?

"Because he's worth every penny of it."

Over the last two seasons, Bryant will have played only 41 of a possible 164 games. He has one more year on his contract for $25 million.

It's a lot for an increasingly injury-prone player whose last three seasons were cut short by a torn Achilles' tendon, fractured knee and now a torn rotator cuff.

Kupchak acknowledged that the Lakers, who ended a nine-game losing streak Thursday and are foundering with a 13-34 record, would need a talent upgrade next season. The catch: They have room for only one maximum-salaried player.

"To me, a big part of Kobe's contribution next year is if we can improve this team during the off-season," Kupchak said.

There's also the Feb. 19 trade deadline, though the Lakers don't have much to offer.

Jordan Hill stands to be their main asset, with a fairly friendly contract that includes a $9-million team option next season.

Carlos Boozer can't be traded because he was acquired via the amnesty provision. Steve Nash's expiring contract of $9.7 million hasn't attracted any takers. Jeremy Lin's $14.9-million salary would keep many teams away, if his inconsistent play hadn't already done so. The other players don't make enough money to be tangible trade assets or are too inconsistent to draw serious attention.

So the Lakers are tanking without tanking, losing a flurry of games without doing it purposely. It's happening simply because their roster is inferior despite a 123-118 double-overtime victory Thursday against Chicago.

Kupchak acknowledged it wouldn't be the worst thing if the Lakers ended up keeping the top-five protected pick they owed Phoenix for the Nash trade.

"A top-five pick is always a good thing," Kupchak said, adding that the Lakers weren't losing on purpose.

"Our coaches and players have been instructed to win games. Maybe I used the wrong word. I don't have to 'instruct' the players to win games and try to win games. I don't have to instruct [Coach] Byron [Scott]. That's why they're here."

One player Kupchak expected to return next season was Bryant. It would be his 20th, all with the Lakers.

"I don't think he's retiring," Kupchak said. "I spoke to him [Thursday] morning. The doctor's prognosis was released yesterday and [Bryant] said he was looking forward to training camp. That's what we expect."

Bryant will need about nine months to recover from his shoulder surgery. It was unclear if he would return in time for training camp, though Kupchak hinted it could happen. At the very least, he will need three or four months before he can start running, Kupchak said.

"He'll be in a brace and it will be an awkward-looking brace. I think that would prevent him from doing anything for quite some time," he said.

Scott added Thursday that the recovery would be a "long process."

"This is probably just as long or longer than the Achilles'. It's going to take a lot of his inner strength to get through this."

Bryant was briefly at Thursday's game against Chicago, wearing a sling on his right shoulder. He had a few private words with Pau Gasol before Gasol's first game against his former team at Staples Center.

Kupchak did not fault Scott for overplaying Bryant, including an average of 37.1 minutes a game in November. Scott has taken the blame for giving Bryant too many minutes. Bryant shot only 37%, by far a career-low.

"Byron is saying the right thing and doing the right thing but I really don't think that had anything to do with anything, certainly not the injury," Kupchak said.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

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