General Manager Mitch Kupchak hears Lakers fans, and feels their pain too
Mitch Kupchak doesn’t scroll through message boards. He doesn’t poll fans at Staples Center after demoralizing losses.
He doesn’t need to. He understands the angst among Lakers followers. He even sympathizes with them.
“I do,” the Lakers general manager said Monday in a phone interview with The Times. “Going into the season, this is not what we expected. We tried to find a mix of young players and veterans that would give our fans something that led to more victories.
“Clearly, three victories at this time is not what we thought we’d be. So that’s frustrating and it’s up to myself and Byron [Scott] to figure it out and hopefully have some improvement toward something that’s more consistent, more fun to watch and less frustrating.”
The Lakers are the present-day antithesis of their rich and vastly entertaining history. They are 3-18, the worst record through 21 games in their 68-year existence.
Kupchak says the public finger-pointing should be somewhat re-routed from Scott, 24-79 overall in his second year as the Lakers’ coach.
“I think our fans would understand if you’re actually developing young players and there’s some growth, and maybe that’s yet to come. But in the first 20 games, it’s tough to find consistent results to feel good about.”
Kupchak was interviewed before the Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors, 102-93, at Air Canada Centre. He expressed support for Scott, who demoted promising young players D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle for Monday’s game, ending their six-week run as starters.
“Last year and this year have been very challenging for a coach of this franchise. Period,” Kupchak said. “I think Byron has got to continue to mess with combinations and search. That’s really all you can do. What we’re doing right now has not resulted in the kind of record that we like, so my guess is he’s going to try and continue to move things around and try to find something that does. That’s what a coach does.”
There were also questions about one of the Lakers’ older players, specifically Kobe Bryant. He has shot poorly and with abandon in his 20th and final NBA season — 30.6% overall and 21.9% from three-point range.
He has distorted the offense with his high volume of inaccurate shots and had not made half of his attempts in a game until hitting eight of 16 Monday.
“You always wonder, is he still trying to find his rhythm and his timing, or is this what we’re going to see for the rest of the year?” Kupchak said. “I think he goes back and forth on it. Some days I think he feels great and his legs feel great and he feels like his rhythm is back, and then the next day it’s not a great game.
“It’s not a game that he plays by himself either. There are teammates that have to put him in positions and a coaching staff that has to put him in position where maybe he’d be more successful. It’s hard to say after 20 games if this is it. Clearly, he’s not the Kobe of old.”
For the future, Randle’s accuracy is too low (43.5%) for a power forward who doesn’t attempt three-pointers, but he is strong on the boards and has nine double-doubles, most among second-year NBA players.
His hard-charging ways have mostly helped and sometimes hurt him. Randle played only one game before his 2014-15 season was ended by a broken leg, so Kupchak considers the 21-year-old to be a rookie now.
“He doesn’t know where he fits in yet on the offensive side and we don’t know ultimately how his impact on this league is going to be felt. But his competitive nature is unmatched.”
New York is swooning over the all-around ability of 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis. Philadelphia liked what it saw from Jahlil Okafor before news of ugly off-court incidents started surfacing.
Kupchak hoped Lakers fans would wait another two or three years before judging Russell, who was drafted second overall last June — two spots before Porzingis and one before Okafor.
“I think he will score in this league. Defensively, he’s got a long way to go. I think he wants it. He’s in the gym before practice and he goes back at night. It’s tough out there for a 19-year-old. He’s just going to have to remain confident and remember that his work ethic is going to make the difference.”
Kupchak doesn’t keep his ear too close to the street. He knows about fan unrest.
The Lakers set a franchise low with only 21 victories last season. They’d be ecstatic to hit that number before their season ends April 13, the third in a row for the Lakers without the playoffs. This has never happened.
“I think our fans understand, this being Kobe’s last year, after 19 just ridiculous years, that we’re in a year that there’s going to be a salute and a goodbye, which in itself is exciting. But we’ve got to give them more than that,” Kupchak said. “Quite frankly, I have to get more answers on our players going forward on this [young] corps. I want to see them develop and not only just get through the season averaging X-number of minutes and then next year we just figure it out. We need answers this year.”
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