Pre-Trade Deadline Discussion: Mitch Kupchak

Mitch Kupchak

With the Feb. 18 trade deadline approaching steadily, we sat down with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to get his perspective on the current mindset of the franchise.

Kupchak offered his analysis of Ron Artest’s progress, shared his thoughts on Kobe Bryant’s similarities to Jerry West and his view of Bryant playing through injuries, and discussed whether or not the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement impacted his current decision making.

Below is the transcript of our conversation:

MT: Clearly this is a championship caliber team, but with the trade deadline approaching, we have the requisite question regarding whether or not you’re looking to make any minor tweaks to the roster?
Kupchak: Our team hasn’t aged significantly in one year, and the one change we made (Ron Artest - Trevor Ariza) arguably could make us a better team … we don’t know until the season is over. We’re happy going into the postseason with this group intact, but we have until the 17th to look at ways to improve the team via a trade. I don’t anticipate anything major with our core group. However, we’ll look at ways to better manage our roster. A word that is always used is ‘tweak’, you used it yourself; I don’t know how you define that, but it could be something that makes a difference. But again, I don’t anticipate any of our core players being involved in anything prior to the trade deadline.

MT: Is it fair to say that a tweak could be motivated by both on-court and salary-based considerations?
Kupchak: What we would look to do is put the organization in a better place to win, and there are a lot of ways to do that. That may mean this year, by trading a player for a player, or next year or the year after that because you better managed your salaries today and that puts you in a better position a year from now to sign a player. Everything we do is geared towards putting the organization in a better position to win, whether that’s for this year, this summer or next year, I don’t know right now. It’s hard to judge what’s going to happen in the next 12 days or so.

Phil JacksonMT: Is it difficult to evaluate a defending championship team in the regular season, when the intensity is (understandably) at times not what it will likely be during the postseason? Or do you simply trust that as long as the team is healthy, the veterans and Phil Jackson can ramp up their collective level of play when it counts?
Kupchak: Generally speaking with a veteran team and a veteran coach, that’s how you feel. This team is a veteran team and does have coaches that are very experienced, perhaps more experienced than anybody with teams trying to repeat. That would be how I look at it, but I talk to our coaches and I have my opinions. You see red flags as a general manager, and while you think the team will figure out at the end of the year, you decide if there is something significant to be addressed before that time. The Lakers get judged on contending for championships, no matter what happens between now and the regular season. Even if we don’t play consistently for the next 30 or so games, if we are in a position to contend and we get lucky and we win a championship, all will be forgotten. That’s the bottom line with this organization. So, it would be premature to overreact to anything right now, not knowing how the season is going to end. The goal is to win the title, and if we don’t win, we’ll perhaps learn a lesson and things will be different next year.

MT: You mentioned Ron Artest earlier, the one addition to this roster from the championship team. It would appear that he’s been playing better basketball in the last few weeks, particularly after declaring that he’s feeling much better from the plantar fasciitis that plagued him prior to the Toronto game. He’s now shooting over 40 percent from three and seems to increasingly understand his position within the triangle. How would you evaluate Artest’s development?
Kupchak: Ron’s play has been (trending upwards), yes. I think he’s fit in pretty well from day one, in terms of not having any individual needs that need to be addressed. There’s been no ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘I’m not getting enough touches’ or ‘I need the ball more,’ there has been none of that. I thought he’s fit in perfectly from day one. Now, from an offensive point of view, it appears as if he’s getting more comfortable with the offense, and it does take time in this offense to know where your shots are going to come from. You mentioned that he may have had some plantar fasciitis, discomfort that needed to be addressed, and clearly if he’s feeling better he’s going to play better. But I just think in general, the more you’re around the offense the more comfortable you become and the more efficient you’re going to be, and that’s what it looks like.

MT: At his press conference in July, several questions referred to Artest’s shot selection and attempts, which in Sacramento and Houston was naturally going to be more varying and higher due to the make up of those teams. But he vowed that scoring wasn’t his priority in L.A., and he’s been true to his word (9.8 field goal attempts this season, 15.0 last season and 16.9 in 2007-08).
Kupchak: Yes. Like I mentioned, he’s just trying to fit in. He’s not here to lead the league in scoring, average 18 points or set himself up for his next contract. He’s here to win, and he has said that from day one. It looks to me as if that’s all he’s trying to do, just figure out how to help the team win.

MT: Kobe Bryant just surpassed Jerry West as the all-time leading scorer in the franchise. You’re one of very few people to spend a great deal of time around both, so I wonder how would you describe some of their similar character traits, the obvious one being a ridiculous level of competitiveness?
Kupchak: It’s really hard to compare players from different eras – just look at what the players were able to do in 1977 or ’78 in the dunk contest and what current players can do and it’s pretty humorous. But in terms of drive and focus, I think they are very similar. Both West and Bryant are very driven and enormously competitive. Jerry’s frustrations were different than Kobe’s, but you can see in some regard very similar. Jerry did not win a championship until 1972, and Kobe experienced success at a much younger age and has already won four championships. That leads to different levels of frustration, but Kobe could have been just as frustrated after a year or two of not winning as Jerry was for his whole career. It’s kind of hard to say. I wasn’t around Jerry then, and I heard he was just miserable … I was around Kobe when he didn’t win a championship for three years, and I know that wasn’t fun. Even to this day, Jerry and I have talked about (losing so many years in the Finals) and he gets really bitter and pensive. He’ll talk about it, but he really doesn’t want to, and he’s never let go.

Ron ArtestMT: In a LakersTV interview we did in December with West, he called Kobe the greatest Laker ever because of his outstanding ability on both offense and defense. So it’s not just about Kobe scoring more than 25,000 points…
Kupchak: It’s always best to have the best all-around players in the league, but we’re often forced to make choices between players that have different strengths on offense and defense. When you have a player that can do both, perhaps at the top of the league like Kobe, you are lucky. Everybody wants a guy that can play effectively at both ends.

MT: Bryant had been playing through a motley crew of injuries before finally sitting down in Portland for the first time since Dec. 8, 2006. What is the General Manager perspective/approach on guys playing with injuries, which is such an individual thing?
Kupchak: You start from a medical point of view. The doctors get involved and make a recommendation. So, clearly, when a player has a broken bone, it’s a no-brainer and a guy doesn’t play. But there are other times when the doctor will say, yes, player X has a significant injury but it’s up to the player. We try to make sure that if a player does continue to play that he can’t do damage to himself down the road, and beyond that, it is up to the player. We always like to believe that a player, when given a choice where he can’t injure himself further, will try to play. At that point it’s up to the coach to watch him play and decide whether or not the player is helping the team. Kobe is one of those players that you never worry about. If the doctor says it’s up to the player, we know what Kobe’s going to do, and I’m OK with that.

MT: Finally, how much consideration do you currently have to give to the uncertain status of the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement when thinking about roster moves or contracts?
Kupchak: The most important thing is that you’re really banking on your relationship with ownership, because you assume ownership is aware of what’s going on at that level. You have to make sure that anything you’re thinking of doing goes to the ownership, which may have different information or concerns. They may be able to direct you on the way you should be thinking, because they own the team. So it’s really important to have a close relationship. I really don’t know anything more than anyone else does; I go online and I read the reports and the comments that some of the players make about the next CBA, but it doesn’t affect what we do now. It may affect what we do this summer, but at that point in time I’m going to rely on my relationship with ownership to give me some guidance.

The last year or so in this league, with the cap going down and the tax going down and the economy, there has been a much more cautious approach by every owner in the league. That hasn’t change at all, and the trade rules haven’t changed, and that’s all we’re concerned about right now.