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Dave McMenamin

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

For Lakers GM Kupchak, work is just beginning

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Jun 20 2009 9:46AM

LOS ANGELES -- Sprays of champagne were still in the air in the Lakers postgame locker room last Sunday and general manager Mitch Kupchak had already moved on from celebration to speculation.

Standing against the back wall in the visitors locker room at Amway Arena in Orlando, there was nary a smile on Kupchak's face. You could almost picture a veil of numbers and figures that only he could see surrounding him, as if he was John Nash's character in A Beautiful Mind.

"I think the emotional ride part is over with," Kupchak said before being asked if he could now breathe a sigh of relief. "Maybe for a day. We have the Draft that comes up next week and we're going to have a busy summer too."

Instead of seeing a 15 to represent the amount of titles Los Angeles has won as a franchise or 10 to represent Phil Jackson's record-setting mark as a coach, Kupchak saw 06-XX-2009, representing the undisclosed date on the horizon which Jackson is contractually obligated to inform the team whether he plans on returning or not.

Jackson spoke to the media on Friday and said, "I'm feeling good" but also indicated he would like an extension on the date to make his decision by. Kupchak obliged, telling reporters he hopes to get an answer in the next two to three weeks, but Jeanie Buss hasn't been so lenient. Buss, the executive vice president of business operations for the Lakers (and Jackson's main squeeze) went on a Los Angeles sports talk radio program last week and said she doesn't want Jackson to have his decision making process become drawn out. At the championship rally on Wednesday, Jackson credited Buss as the main reason he came back to coach the Lakers in 2005, so it seems like she knows the right buttons to push.

Every player asked about Jackson's status after their exit interviews said they expected their coach to be back next season, but a few threw out a caveat afterwards -- you never can be too sure when it comes to Phil. Jackson's health hasn't made any news since he missed a late-season road trip to Portland because of swelling in his legs, but there were a few instances during the Playoffs that suggested he still has some lingering effects.

During one pregame news conference during the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, the little set of stairs that attaches to the podium was nowhere to be found. Rather than take one big step onto the podium that rested about two feet off the ground, Jackson stood to the side and the dais was brought down to him. On Wednesday, Jackson skipped the parade portion of the team's championship celebration, eschewing the grand entrance down hundreds of stairs on the south side of the L.A. Coliseum. Jackson was dropped off by a car that drove right onto the edge of the field at the north side of the stadium and then entered a Pope-mobile like vehicle that carted him to the stage.

But Jackson was just the beginning of Kupchak's worries.

Instead of seeing a No. 4 for Kobe Bryant's ring total floating before him, the general manager saw Bryant's opt-out clause on his contract. Bryant joked on Friday that he had no idea about his contract situation, saying "I can't even read." When pressed, Bryant said, "I'm not going anywhere. I know I ain't going nowhere, so it's just a waste of our breaths just talking about it. Let's talk about Trevor [Ariza] and Lamar [Odom] and the importance of bringing them back."

Even if Kupchak can feel relatively comfortable about having his coach and his MVP back in the fold next season, he doesn't have the same piece of mind when it comes to his starting small forward and sixth man. When asked if he was "confident" or "hopeful" about retaining the two unrestricted free agents, Kupchak chose the latter.

"I don't know what the market will be," Kupchak said. "That part of it brings great uncertainty to what may take place this summer, so I can't speak to likely or likelihood or most likely, I would say we're hopeful."

The Lakers already have roughly $74 million committed to eight players next season when the luxury tax level is expected to be in the $70 million range. Any player the Lakers sign to round out their 13-man roster will essentially cost them double whatever salary they agree upon because when a team is above the luxury tax threshold, there is a dollar for dollar penalty it has to pay to the league.

Kupchak said he will consult with Jim Buss, the team's vice president of player personnel, as well as owner Dr. Jerry Buss to decide how deep into the luxury tax the team will be willing to go in order to retain the roster.

"I anticipate the three of us getting together in the next week to 10 days prior to July 1," Kupchak said. "That would be Dr. Buss' decision."

Ariza and Odom have both said they want to keep the team together and return to the Lakers next season, but no matter what their intentions are, they can't really know what they're going to do until they see what price they are fetching on the open market.

"Every free agent period brings on uncertainty, this year maybe more than others with the economy and the fact that we have three unrestricted free agents," Kupchak said. "Unrestricted free agency is completely different than restricted free agency ... it's a free market, we don't have rights to match on any players so we'll have to make quick decisions and hopefully we can bring this team back intact."

In the more immediate future, Kupchak has the Draft to take care of on June 25. The Lakers have three picks -- No. 29 in the first round and Nos. 42 and 59 in the second. Kupchak said that if L.A. brought every player back that it intended to from its 2008-09 roster, then the team would already have 14 players. With that in mind, the general manager said the Lakers would be open to trading a pick or two or might draft a foreign player and keep him overseas for a season or two.

The Lakers players left their news conferences after their exit interviews and headed off to their summer vacations. Bryant said he was going to learn how to go scuba diving. Pau Gasol, Sasha Vujacic and Sun Yue were all returning to their home countries to play in basketball tournaments with their national teams. Shannon Brown, L.A.'s other key free agent, was headed back to Chicago to "throw a couple parties" with his friends he grew up with.

Kupchak left his media session and walked back up to his office. For him, there's still work to be done.

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