A year later, Mitch Kupchak is more guarded about Lakers’ expectations
The Lakers are a few days from flying to Honolulu, an apropos time to leave behind what happened on the mainland last season.
If ashes from a pitiful 21-victory effort could be scattered over the Pacific at 35,000 feet, it would surely happen at about 5 p.m. Monday.
A year ago, almost to the day, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said the expectations were to “win a championship,” a remark that drew plenty of dissection, if not sarcasm, as the season unraveled unlike any other in a proud 67-year history.
He was more guarded Thursday at the team’s El Segundo training facility, cognizant that the Lakers are a mishmash of old, young and somewhere in between, trying to segue seamlessly from the Kobe Bryant era to whatever awaits in 2016-17.
“There’s always going to be pressure to win a championship and every year that’s going to be our goal,” Kupchak said. “But we’re realistic in where we are and we do feel we have an interesting mix.”
The first several questions lobbed at Kupchak were about Bryant, entering his 20th season but limited to only 41 games over the last two.
Bryant, 37, has been medically cleared to play and still holds intrigue as a household name while making a generous $25 million in what will presumably be his last season.
There will be a minutes limitation of some sort after Bryant averaged 22.3 points on dubious 37.3% accuracy before suffering a torn rotator cuff last January. Bryant could also sit out plenty of games in back-to-back situations, of which the Lakers have 18, though nothing was officially decided yet, Kupchak said.
Many eyes will focus on how Bryant handles A) the young Lakers and B) a possible move to small forward.
Kupchak provided a preview, trying to suppress a small laugh. Bryant has never been known as a mentor, preferring to lead by example, not words. He surely won’t start deferring on-court responsibilities to teammates.
“I don’t think it’ll be any different than it’s been in years past,” Kupchak said. “He’ll be 100% on board with the game plan and he’ll be patient, as patient as he can be, but there will be a point where if things aren’t going the way that he feels they should be going, or the players aren’t producing, his instincts will kick in and I’m sure he’ll try to do as much as possible.”
That will be tricky.
The Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 pick to play alongside promising guard Jordan Clarkson. If both end up starting the season opener Oct. 28 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant gets shifted to small forward. Second-year power forward Julius Randle also will get plenty of court time and rookie power forward Larry Nance Jr. might too.
The Lakers won’t know who they are until six to eight weeks into the season, Kupchak said more than once, adding “anything’s possible” as a verbal shrug.
He was more assertive in analyzing the job done by Coach Byron Scott in his first tour with the Lakers after also coaching the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers. There were many negatives last season, but Scott was viewed as a plus by Kupchak.
“I thought he was great last year under really tough circumstances,” Kupchak said. “He kept the group together — in the locker room, on the bus, on the plane, on the court. They played hard every game.”
Optimism could also be squeezed from the effort Kupchak saw the last few weeks when looking out his window down to the team’s practice court. He would see 10 to 12 Lakers out there almost daily, working out individually or in half-court scrimmages.
“We’ve not had this kind of activity every day in this building, this kind of energy, for as long as I’ve been here,” Kupchak said. “The players just show up and they’re all out there working and they’re asking our coaches, ‘Can you work with me on this, can you work with me on that?’ ”
Behind closed doors, Russell, 19, looked more relaxed after shooting 11.8% from three-point range and averaging 5.2 turnovers a game in a rough five-game patch at the NBA’s summer league in July.
“He’s played much more at ease the last six weeks,” Kupchak said.
The Lakers made a roster move Thursday, agreeing to contract terms with Metta World Peace, a curious transaction because World Peace sat out last season and averaged only 4.8 points in 2013-14 with the New York Knicks while complaining about a lack of playing time. It’s also somewhat strange that World Peace would agree to a non-guaranteed one-year deal because he could be cut next month if the preseason doesn’t go well enough, perhaps the last chapter in an entertaining, if not erratic, career.
But the deal made some sense because World Peace, 35, was a mainstay at the Lakers’ facility during the off-season, continually bodying up against Randle in scrimmages.
“It’s almost comical, what they do to each other,” Kupchak said. “I’m not sure who gets the better of it. I could see Julius going home and getting in the tub [for therapy] but I can see Metta going in and getting in the tub too.”
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