Mitch Kupchak says Lakers won’t throw in the towel next season
A lot has happened to the Lakers since General Manager Mitch Kupchak last spoke to reporters.
Dwight Howard left for Houston despite the Lakers’ very public campaign to keep him. Metta World Peace was waived via the amnesty provision and quickly joined New York. Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson were all signed as free agents.
It leaves the Lakers … where, exactly?
But first, the obvious question for Kupchak, who spoke Monday to The Times in his first interview in more than a month:
How disappointed was he to lose Howard in free agency to the “little town” of Houston, as Shaquille O’Neal derisively called it?
“It wasn’t a surprise. I had a feeling that Houston was a frontrunner, and whenever a player is an unrestricted free agent, anything can happen,” Kupchak said. “Clearly, we wanted to keep him here in Los Angeles, and I felt we did everything we could do within reason to show we did want to keep him here.
“Until the end, I kept up hope. I think we were as persistent as we could be within reason. I wasn’t shocked but I was disappointed.”
With Kobe Bryant coming back at an unknown date from a torn Achilles’ tendon, is it time to punt away next season and play for a high draft pick in 2014?
“You know that’s not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll,” Kupchak said. “That’s never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.
“We have challenges. There’s no doubt. We don’t know when Kobe’s coming back, and we don’t know what level he’s going to come back at, although we’re optimistic. Everything’s good with Steve [Nash]. Pau [Gasol] should be fine. We’ve added some athleticism. We’re hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game.”
It’s still hard to gauge Bryant’s return date after having surgery in mid-April to repair his Achilles. The original timetable released by the team called for six to nine months of recovery time.
“Obviously, we’re all hopeful and we all know Kobe. When you guess on Kobe, he always tries to prove you wrong,” Kupchak said. “The reality is he’s doing what he should be doing. He’s making progress probably weekly.
“Does that mean five months is possible or it’s really going to be eight or nine or 10? We just don’t know. When he gets back in September, we’ll take another look at him, but he hasn’t been on a basketball court. It’s really premature to try to predict other than try to be optimistic that he’ll be ready for opening night or the 15th of November or the 1st of December or the 15th of December.”
Nash and Gasol were miserable for the Lakers last season, missing a combined 65 games and struggling at both ends of the court.
Nash couldn’t even finish the playoffs because of lingering issues from a broken left leg, and Gasol, who turned 33 this month, quickly underwent a postseason procedure to decrease tendon pain in both knees.
“I expect both those guys to participate in training camp. Kobe is obviously the wild card right now,” Kupchak said.
“I spoke to Pau about two weeks ago for 45 minutes. He said he feels a lot better than he did a month ago. He was optimistic that he’d be ready for training camp. He does plan on playing three or four more years, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t with his skill level.
“We saw Nash out here last week. If I had to guess, he feels he’s in the 90th-percentile of where he wants to be. We still have two more months.”
The Lakers begin training camp at the end of September, with the season starting a month later.
Nash and Robert Sacre are the only players with guaranteed contracts after next season, combining to make $10.6 million in 2014-15 and giving the Lakers plenty of purchasing power next July when a host of top-level players could become free agents — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng. Restricted free agents could include Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe.
“I’m not sure if you’ll see that Dwight Howard type of player go from team to team, although it is possible,” Kupchak said. “We do feel Los Angeles is a destination spot. We have complete confidence in the organization, the city, our fan base, that we would be considered as a destination for players in the future. So we’re hopeful going forward that the flexibility that we have will be beneficial.”
Kupchak is not allowed to talk publicly about specific players on other teams, but he also alluded to the potentially talented pool of players who could be available two years from now, when Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Rajon Rondo could be free agents.
“You have to look beyond next year. You can’t say we have all this flexibility and we’re going to use it all next year,” Kupchak said. “You don’t know if you’re going to use it for a free agent or a trade or to sign back Pau or Kobe. We’re in the position where we can sit down at the end of the year and look and see what’s best for the organization. We’re in control, so to speak.”
After years of trading or selling their first-round picks to other teams, the Lakers still hold their first-round pick in next year’s draft, projected to be one of the strongest in almost a decade.
“In terms of the cycle that other teams go through, we’re probably in as good a position as we could be,” Kupchak said. “But there’s a lot of unknowns. It’s unpredictable what exactly is going to take place a year from now.”
Kupchak maintained confidence in Coach Mike D’Antoni, who officially added Kurt Rambis and Johnny Davis to his staff Monday. “I think he’s done a great job of putting a staff together that’s enthusiastic, got a lot of energy and experience,” Kupchak said.
Kupchak also liked the team’s ability to sign Kaman, Young, Farmar and Johnson for a combined $6.5 million next season.
“This off-season if we did one thing, between the small forward and wing spot and backcourt, we got quicker and more athletic, something I think we needed,” he said.
The Lakers currently have allocated $76.5 million to 11 players next season, about $5 million over the luxury-tax threshold.
An attempt to get under the threshold was “not something that we’ve discussed,” Kupchak said. “You’d have to look to move two higher-priced players and we don’t have plans for that.”
Next season, not surprisingly, will come down to Bryant and Nash, who will be 35 and 39 by opening night.
“If they can both make a contribution in line with what they’ve done in the past, then we think we can win a bunch of games with this team,” Kupchak said.
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