Mitch Kupchak sounded relaxed when he picked up the phone Wednesday, a contrast to the frantic environment across the NBA as teams and players rush to get ready for opening day.
A new collective-bargaining agreement has yet to be ratified, but the Lakers’ general manager sounded confident about his team’s title chances as a shortened 66-game regular season is scheduled to begin Dec. 25.
“We believe in this group,” Kupchak said in his first interview with The Times since the league lifted its media blackout on team personnel. “Prior to the lockout there was a month or two where you could make trades, and obviously we didn’t do anything. We like the group.
“There’s a couple of holes … so we have to fill in and shore up our depth chart a little bit. [Coach] Mike [Brown] made some comments before the lockout that he thought this team could win [a championship], and we feel the same.”
NBA teams will open their training facilities to players Thursday, but team officials are still not allowed to talk to them until the collective bargaining agreement is ratified with a majority vote of 450-plus players and 30 owners. The approval is expected next week.
How’s Kobe Bryant, the 33-year-old who has logged 48,326 career minutes and underwent a minor procedure on his ailing right knee after last season?
“I have no idea,” Kupchak said. “We’ve had no contact with any players. I know exactly what you know because it’s in the papers. Apparently he did a charity thing the other day because it was in the newspaper.
“He’s not a player I worry about. I know he’s a player that takes care of himself. That’s not an issue.”
The Lakers’ one-sided loss to Dallas in last season’s Western Conference semifinals will leave a lasting impression, Kupchak said.
“Early exits and unexpected losses are always motivating factors for motivating a team,” Kupchak said. “When we got beat by Boston in Game 6 [in 2008] that was a huge motivating factor the following year, and I suspect losing to Dallas will have the same effect.”
The Lakers are an older team, with eight players over 30, and the compressed regular-season schedule won’t be friendly. Teams will have to play three games in three nights at least once this season. Some will have to do it two or three times.
“I’m so old that I’ve been though the first lockout and I did play in a year when we played back-to-backs-to-backs several times in a season,” Kupchak, 57, said. “One was 8 p.m. Friday in Washington, 7:30 Saturday in Cleveland and a Sunday afternoon game in Washington. And that was commercial travel.
“I know it can be done because we’ve done it. There really are no options. Certainly 66 games is better than 50 [the number in the shortened 1998-99 season].
“I think a lot of it is mental. I feel you could be tired walking to the court, but once you see the lights and hear the crowd and feel the crowd, you’re not tired. Something kicks in. That’s got to be our approach. That’s got to be every team’s approach to the season. And I think that’s how we’re going to sell it to our team.”
Wednesday marked the first day NBA personnel could talk to the media, though they were limited in what they could say. They were not allowed to discuss the ramifications of the proposed collective bargaining deal.
Training camps are scheduled to begin Dec. 9, and the Lakers are expected to play two exhibition games at Staples Center.
Kupchak declined to discuss the Lakers’ limited free-agent possibilities. The Lakers are so far over the luxury-tax threshold, their only spending tool is the “mini mid-level exception” of three years and $9.4 million. Wednesday was the first day teams were allowed to talk to players’ agents about free agents, but verbal and written agreements are not allowed until Dec. 9.
Kupchak also declined to talk specifically about trade possibilities.
“We’ll do what we always do. We’ll look for opportunities to improve the team,” he said. “If we did nothing, we think the team can still win. We’ll look to see if there’s anything different from what took place before the lockout.”
The Lakers also have a new coach, and they will have very little time to install Brown’s schemes on offense and defense. Usually NBA teams have 28 days and eight games during the exhibition season, but the 149-day lockout took a chunk out of that.
“It’s not what we’re used to,” Kupchak said. “You’ll have to assess the shape [players] are in, and if they’ve been playing all summer and during the fall. You’re not going to know these things until the first day or two of camp.
“But if you manage your team correctly and the severity of the practices appropriately, it should be enough time to get your group reasonably ready to play.”
Brown and his coaching staff spent eight to 10 hours a day at the Lakers’ training facility the last few months, Kupchak said.
The Lakers’ schedule has not been released, but Andrew Bynum will be suspended for the first five games because he body-slammed Dallas guard Jose Barea in the playoffs.
“Five games as a percentage of 82 is a much smaller number than five as a percentage of 66, so the impact is bigger because of the loss of games,” Kupchak said. “But that’s the price to pay. I don’t think anybody was surprised that he was suspended.”
Kupchak declined to comment on the one-time “amnesty” provision in the new labor deal, but the Lakers might use it to waive Metta World Peace (Ron Artest) or Luke Walton and save considerable money on luxury taxes. They will also troll the waters to see which players are waived by other teams via the same provision.
The Lakers must also find a backup shooting guard if free agent Shannon Brown signs with another team, although the Lakers contacted Brown’s agent Wednesday.
“There’s a spot or two in the backcourt and a spot or two in the frontcourt, but we also have two rookies that we drafted in the middle of the second round that probably deserve a chance to be looked at and have promise,” Kupchak said, referring to guards Darius Morris of Michigan and Andrew Goudelock of College of Charleston.
Things will get busier for the Lakers in the coming weeks, and the schedule will look achingly difficult some nights, but Kupchak is ready to begin.
“Starting on Christmas Day is certainly better than the alternative,” he said.