Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak addressed assembled media members at the team’s practice facility in advance of the 2013-14 season. He addressed a wide range of questions, including the status of Kobe Bryant as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon, the health of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the club’s offseason signings and more. Below is a transcription of the press conference:
Kupchak: With the exception of Kobe (Bryant), we expect everyone to be able to participate to some degree in practice. Now clearly, we’re going to be a little more patient with Pau (Gasol), Steve Nash and Ryan Kelly. But we expect a full training camp for us to maybe use 19 people. There are some spots that are up for grabs, but it’ll be competitive and it’ll be spirited. We’re excited.
Q: Do you think this has any negative impact in signing free agents in the future:
Kupchak: No, I don’t think that has anything to do with it. The Lakers and Los Angeles remains a destination for athletes in any sport. As you know this is a wonderfully supportive fan base in Los Angeles, a vibrant city and our franchise is one of the best, if not the best, since we came here in 1960. We’ve always figured a way to bring players and put competitive and championship teams on the court. Those things don’t change.
Q: On what he expects from Kobe this season:
Kupchak: No real expectations. I do believe he’ll get back and play this season. You won’t be able to look at him and say he was hurt. In other words, some guys, like myself when I hurt my knee, I always had a limp. You won’t be able to tell. He’ll get back on the court, he’ll be healthy, but he is 35. His game has been evolving anyway the last two or three years, although statistically you would not notice that. Even if there is a difference statistically this year, it may be a function not of the injury, but of the team we have he may decide to get players involved more or do things differently. He comes into the season with a mindset of how he’s going to play. I do expect when he does come back, and if he’s thinking a certain way, and we’re down by two or three, the Kobe we all know and love is going to take the last shot. I do know that.
Q: On if he’s explored talking with Kobe about his approach on the court this season:
Kupchak: No, that’s really more an area that falls under the coaching than what we do. I’ve seen Kobe this offseason more than I’ve seen him any offseason. He’s been in the facility every single day at 7 o’clock in the morning. We’ve visited once or twice a week, but it’s more like: ‘how you doing’ and talking about the team as it evolved in early July and August, and monitoring his progress and stuff like that.
Q: On any contract extension talks with Kobe:
Kupchak: There have been no contract extension talks (with Kobe). I would suspect that at some point this season, we’ll sit down, whether it be Kobe and I, or Kobe and his representative, Rob Pelinka, and talk about the roadmap for the future. But Kobe has made it clear that he intends to retire in a Laker uniform, and I know as an organization, we feel the same way.
Q: On a wait and see approach with Kobe regarding extension talks:
Kupchak: I think it’s natural. He wants to do the same thing. If you think for a second that Kobe can’t play at a high level or up to his expectations that he wants to continue to play, I don’t think that’s in his DNA. I think it makes sense for him and for us to get him back on the court, and to get a feel or a gauge of how much longer he wants to play and at what level.
Q: On what he’s most excited about with the roster he’s put together:
Kupchak: We have open spots, so I think there will be a lot of competition. Considering our roadmap and our game plan for the next year or two, which certainly involves a lot of financial flexibility, I thought we were able to get a nice combination of veteran players that are proven and can play in this league, and younger players who were drafted high in the draft, but for some reason, did not get to where they wanted to get to as quick as they wanted to get there. We’ve added some new coaches to our coaching staff. Excitement is high and it’s a fun time of the year for our team, and for all NBA teams.
Q: On the statuses of Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Ryan Kelly regarding their health:
Kupchak: Nash has been practicing and scrimmaging at 100 percent for maybe a month to a month-and-a-half now. I’d say he’s been scrimmaging for two to three weeks. But he and I communicated during the summer and probably a month to a month-and-a-half ago, he indicated he was 100 percent, and we want to keep it at that pace and level. I don’t know how we’ll use him in camp. He’ll start practicing right away, but he may not practice 100 percent like the younger players do. Pau, it’s the same thing. I’ve spoken to him and we’ve communicated over the summer. He feels better and better. I’m not sure how much he’s been on the basketball court the last two or three weeks, but he certainly feels feels ready to go, and like with all veterans, we’ll bring him along slowly. Part of the reason we’re looking to bring in 19 to 20 guys into camp is we make sure we have enough so we don’t have to push our veterans unnecessarily in training camp. Ryan Kelly, it’s been a rough time for him. It’s a frustrating period not being able to play basketball for six months. I don’t anticipate him participating much in training camp. Expectations for a second-round pick are not high anyway, but we like his size and his ability to shoot the ball. We like what he can bring to the court if healthy.
Q: On Pau Gasol the last several years sacrificing his overall game for Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard, and what he expects from him this year, if he’s healthy:
Kupchak: If he’s healthy, he’s going to be an All Star player. He’ll be the focal point of our play in the paint. He’ll be able to post up and he’ll be on the move whether it’s a pick and roll or pick and (pop). He’ll be able to hit (the outside shot). He won’t really have to share that much space. Much of what we did last year was an adjustment and deferring and trying to figure out how Dwight Howard would fit in and try to get the best out of him. Pau Gasol made a lot of sacrifices last year. I think he’s looking forward to playing this year.
Q: Does the organization have to monitor Kobe and make sure he doesn’t do too much, too soon?
Kupchak: We can only control what he does in this building. Yeah, I’m concerned. He hasn’t really been on the basketball court. He’s been in the training room and he’s been on the alter-G treadmill. I’ve looked out my window for three months, and he hasn’t been on the basketball court one day. But quite frankly, I’m wondering if he goes to a gym at night somewhere.
Q: On how going into this season feels different compared to previous season:
Kupchak: There’s a little bit of an underdog tag, low expectations contrasted to a year ago. It’s night and day.
Q: On his expectations going into this season:
Kupchak: It’s hard to have expectations right now until when and how Kobe is going to return. You cannot sit down and pencil in what you think your record may be until you know how one of the best, if not the best player in the NBA, is going to play and when he is going to play.
Q: On how the team will pick up defensively losing Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard, two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners:
Kupchak: The coaches have been meeting every day and they’re going to have to change how they coach. You could argue with Dwight, you could funnel into the paint and you know you have that big guy back there. There’s nobody like him in the NBA. Pau is big and long, and Chris (Kaman) is big and long, Jordan Hill, who did not play much last year, is very active defensively rebounding and blocking shots. So obviously, we can’t depend on one player to make up for the mistakes; it’s going to have to be more of a team effort.
Q: On if he thinks it’s important that Kobe shows a little bit more facilitating in order to lure a high-profile free agent for next season or the future:
Kupchak: Kobe is not going to play to lure somebody to Los Angeles. He’s going to play to win games. If the way he plays helps lure players to Los Angeles, then so be it. In January, February and March, that’s not what he’s thinking when there’s a game being played.
Q: On if less pressure and lower expectations is better for the team heading into this season:
Kupchak: Well, I guess it depends how we end up. I think right now going into the season, it’s probably a good thing. I enjoyed going into last season like everybody else did. I thought the second half of the year we measured up to expectations. If we played the first half of the year like we played the second half of the year, we would have won 60+ games. Then the injury bug got us at the end of the year. Not to say if we didn’t get injured, we would have won a championship. I don’t know if we would have. But people in Los Angeles expect the Lakers to be in a position every season to win a championship, and I don’t think that’s the expectation right now. That’s not how we feel. We feel we’re as good as anybody. But once again, we have to get our team on the court, they have to play at a high level, everybody has to be healthy, our young guys and veterans we signed have to produce and that’s how we’ll be judged.
Q: On if it’s dangerous if fans are looking ahead to next July:
Kupchak: It’s natural with the way things have been set up. Yeah, I do think it’s a little bit dangerous only because the rules have been created where it’s going to be tough to get players to move. It really is. I don’t know what next offseason holds. Certainly we’ll be active. If we want to get done what we want to get done, then great. If not, we’ll move to the next offseason, and then we’ll move to the next offseason. I know at some point in time we’ll be able to put together a very competitive and attractive team. I don’t think this is a franchise that can take 15 years to build through the draft. The worst thing you can do is be burdened with contracts that are $6, 7, 8 million dollars a year that go out three or four years and have average players, and you’re kind of stuck in the middle. You’re not going to get a good draft choice and you don’t have financial flexibility. So in my opinion, we’re probably best as set up as we can for the future.
Q: On if he has any time frame of when Kobe will start to get onto the court:
Kupchak: I don’t have a timeline. I really don’t. The only thing I know is he’s still on the alter-G (treadmill). When you get to 100 percent, that’s a gravity-oriented treadmill where you can adjust your weight percentages. When you get to 100 percent you’re there for a couple days, then you transition to the court. Like I said he has not been on the court yet, but I’m not aware of any setback. When he get back to the court, it’s no like he’s not going to start practicing. It’s going to take some time.
Q: On any idea of how many players they’ll take on the roster:
Kupchak: You have to keep 13. In year’s past, it would probably be harder to justify keeping 14 or 15. But I could see where it comes down to a decision where you can keep a 14th or 15th player, and I think ownership would be open to it than they would in year’s past.
Q: On how Mike D’Antoni will handle this roster with a full traning camp:
Kupchak: It’s hard to have expectations. It really is. I mentioned Kobe and we just don’t know when and how he’ll look when he gets back. Although I expect him to be productive, I don’t know when that is. If he gets back early in the season and we’re going to have a high performing player for 60 to 70 games, that’s one thing. If we have a delay and there’s setbacks, that’s going to affect the performance of the team. Anybody else in this league who plays at that level, if you don’t have that player, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. I do feel the players that we have are excited to be playing the kind of basketball that Mike D’Antoni coaches.
Q: On managing Kobe’s personality in terms of input to the coaching staff:
Kupchak: No, there’s never a comfort level. With Kobe, you just try to manage who he is the best you can. Trust me, at 17 years going on 18 year in the league, you’re not going to change who Kobe is. He’s mellowed a bit, and from time to time, he likes to talk to the media, but during a game, he’s tough to manage. He’s got blinders on, his mind is racing, the juices are flowing, he’s competitive, he’s thinking about the score, down by one or up by one. He’s cut a little bit differently, so that’s not going to change. The best Mike can hope for is to get to know Kobe better and maybe figure out a way to manage it as best he can. I think that’s Mike’s best chance. No coach has been able to control Kobe. No coach we’ve had since 1996, and that’s not going to change.
Q: On what he envisions D’Antoni’s offense (a lot of pick-and-roll or getting up and down the floor) to be this season:
Kupchak: It’s going to be really the way all NBA teams play today. It’s not something that one person came up with. It’s really based on the rules and the way the NBA is, I guess, how they feel the game should be played. For example, years ago, they wanted to cut down on hand checking. They put the semi-circle under the basket to allow players to get to the rim more. The NBA just felt an open game, more up and down, more scoring and less physicality is a better game to watch, and because of the rules, our coaches are so good, they figured out a way to play that way. If the rules ever change, the coaches will change how they coach, but that’s the way the NBA game is played today.
Q: On signing guys like Elias Harris, Marcus Landry, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, etc.:
Kupchak: Like I said, some of them are former high draft choices. In fact, some of them are lottery picks. When you come out of college and you’re 19 years old and get drafted in the first round, general managers are forced to decide your future or at least part of your future after the first year. A lot of times, a general manager won’t pick up the third-year or fourth-year option only because they haven’t had enough to look at the player. Sometimes those guys are better off with the second team they’re with. Shannon Brown is a great example. Shannon came out of college early and couldn’t find his niche. We brought him here and he found his niche. We’re hoping that one or two or three of those guys will be the same with us. They’re very talented and drafted high for a reason. Maybe because of age or the makeup of the team or the coach, they didn’t grow as quickly as they could have grown. So we have the roster spots and it makes for a healthy opportunity for players. They play the way the Mike wants to coach, so I think it’s good.
Q: On the positives or negatives of signing these players to one-year deals:
Kupchak: I think players look at it as an opportunity. Clearly, they get guidance from their agent, but I’m sure their agents are saying: ‘Listen, they have all this cap room and financial flexibility a year from now. This is a great opportunity for you.’ In year’s past when we were so far over the cap, I’m sure a lot of agents were saying: ‘Even if you play well, they’re only going to sign minimum guys.’ I’ve talked to a lot of agents and they feel this is a great spot for players.
Q: On constructing a roster and using the financial flexibility as management tries to reconstruct the club the next couple years:
Kupchak: We’ve given away draft choices in the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades. We have our pick this year and a pick every year for the next two or three years. We looked at a lot of these young players as draft picks. We may not have our draft pick this season, but as I mentioned, we got three guys that were former lottery picks. This draft is shaping up to be one of the best, but it’s way too early to tell. We don’t know where we’ll be in the process, but it’s a good year to have a pick.
Q: On if he feels Steve Nash can still be an elite point guard in the NBA:
Kupchak: I do. We’re not expecting 35 minutes per game from Steve Nash. He is completely healthy right now. The one player we haven’t talked about is Jordan Farmar. We know him very well and he gave up a very lucrative deal in Turkey to come to Los Angeles. He’s been here every day and he’s playing very well. With Steve Blake and Jordan and Steve Nash, we’re hoping that combination will give Nash some rest where we won’t have to rely on him 100 percent. He’s 39 years old, and you can’t play him 35 to 40 minutes per game. I don’t know what the number is. But we have some players we can go to and give him a rest.
Q: Regarding last season and the different roles certain players had to play:
Kupchak: The whole season was a laborious process to win one game, then the next game, then the next game. There wasn’t enough practice to buy into a system. There was so much pressure to win and get into the playoffs and the players did whatever they could do to win games. Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta (World Peace) were very, very unselfish in the way they chose to play the game. They gave up a lot of what they did to win games. I don’t know how this year is going to go. I think we’re a great team with the ball in Steve Nash’s hands, but once again, I’m not sure how it’s going to play out. With the training camp and increased depth at that position, I think there’s more confidence back there than there was last year.
Q: On if this team, in a loaded Western Conference, and with the expectations already on the team, can they be more cohesive and can that play be reflected in the standings:
Kupchak: We ended up with the 7th seed (last season), and we were a little disjointed. Whether it was on the court, or the injury factor and then no training camp. All those things were a factor. I can’t dismiss the fact that we ended the season 28-12. You can’t dismiss that. That’s on pace to win almost 60 games. But it wasn’t everybody moving in one direction. Hopefully this year will be a better case to make, but once again, we don’t know when our best player will be back. So hopefully he gets back in a timely fashion, and moves in. He will be able to watch the team play and he’ll see where he fits in, and if that takes place, I think you’ll see a team that’s fun to watch and we’ll win a bunch of games.