Mitch Kupchak End of the Year Chat

Mitch Kupchak We sat down with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to discuss his outlook on the team heading into the playoffs, his staff’s approach to the coming NBA Draft as well as free agency and, of course, to detail his alma mater UNC’s involvement in the NIT and hated rival Duke’s National title.

MT: Sorry Mitch, but I have to start with the fact that Duke won the National Championship. There are few prouder North Carolina alums than you – you’re even wearing Tar Heel colors right now – so the question is, could you bring yourself to draft a Duke player?
Kupchak: It would be very hard to do that. (long pause) But I work for the Lakers. Whatever the best player is, regardless of where he goes to school, but it would be very difficult to draft a Duke player.

MT: Carolina in the N.I.T. couldn’t have been the best thing ever for you, I suppose?
Kupchak: I’ve taken a lot of hits for that. But they did have four guys go into the NBA and they won an NCAA championship last year. They’ll be right there again next year with a great recruiting class. When you show your colors like I do you’re exposing yourself; most of us that went to school there don’t hide that fact. Look around the office here*. There’s a great rivalry with that other school in Durham, so even though it’s been 30 years since I left, I have a strong allegiance to that program.
*Editor’s note: We’re talking a plethora of Carolina gear, trophies, jerseys, framed pictures, you name it.

MT: Yeah kind of like my allegiance to Northwestern and the great hoops program we have there…
Kupchak: Almost the same thing.

MT: Let’s just hope you’re not in the position where a Dukie is the best player on the board.
Kupchak: I’d probably let (assistant GM) Ronnie Lester step in.

MT: OK moving on, while announcing Kobe Bryant’s contract extension you had said that, sure, you were concerned with the team’s level of play, but that ultimately you trusted them: “This team certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt until the playoffs are over.”
Kupchak: You can look at it several different ways. The simplest is, what’s your record going into the playoffs over the last 10 games (4-6) or 15 games (9-6), and our record is not that good. So your first thing would be, well I’m concerned, and rightfully so. But another way to look at it is to question why the record not that good. Well, you have injuries. You have a veteran team. Look back to 2001 and 2002. In 2001 we won 56 games and won a championship, and in 2002 we won 57 games and we won a championship. So the fact that you’ve gone from 60-something wins to 50-something, it doesn’t mean that you are or aren’t going to win again. At the end of the day, we’re not talking about an inexperienced roster or coaching staff, so that led me to say what I said. This team, based on what they’ve accomplished and not just recently deserves the chance to go into the playoffs and make any adjustments that they feel necessary, and to play. We all know that no matter what happened 10 days ago or three weeks ago, everybody will be evaluated based on how the season ends.

MT: The team is 38-12 when both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol play…
Kupchak: Absolutely. And the good news is that we feel Andrew will be able to make a contribution. I’m much more comfortable than I was the last two years. He made it back last year, but he came back from a serious knee injury. I had concerns. And two years ago he didn’t make it back from an injury to his other knee. He hasn’t played in the last 25 days or so, but I feel much more comfortable today than I did last year. I don’t think the Achilles injury is going to have the same impact that the last two had. In fact, I see him out there shooting right now (on Wednesday morning), that’s the first time I’ve seen that in a while.

MT: Another potential good sign is that Luke Walton played 24 minutes against Sacramento on Tuesday, the most he’s played this season…
Kupchak: Yes, and that makes a difference. He was our starting small forward for several years, and when we got Trevor (Ariza), he eventually blossomed and Luke became a significant player of the bench. Luke hasn’t hardly played at all for us this year. I don’t know how much he’ll play in any one series, but that’s another player where we miss his presence. He’s helped that second unit succeed with his presence, knowing how to play the game and serving as a catalyst. That’s another thing along with Bynum’s return that has put me in a position where, hey listen, they’ve earned the right. Let’s be healthy … we have a great coach … and let the chips fall where they may.

MT: What’s your thought process on Kobe Bryant particularly with his broken finger?
Kupchak: Everybody’s got aches and pains in the shoulder, or an ankle, or a hip at this point of the year. I’m not concerned about that with Kobe, but his finger is a concern. I don’t know how he does it. I just don’t know. He has it taped up, the index finger on his right hand, and he’s somehow figured out how to do it. But I don’t think anyone would say that over his last 10 games he’s shot the ball as well as he can shoot the ball. He has had some rest here and won’t play again until the first playoff game, so maybe another six or seven days will help. I saw him out here the other day shooting without a brace and am not sure if that’s something he’s contemplating or not.

MT: We still hear the “soft” label thrown at Pau Gasol on occasion. But he has season averages of 18.3 points, 11.3 boards (fifth in the NBA) and nearly two blocks while guarding a good amount of opposing centers, is shooting 65 percent in his last five games for an average of 27 points and he stood up very well to opposing bigs throughout the championship run last season, including Dwight Howard. Is it silly to still call him “soft?”
Mitch Kupchak Kupchak: I think it’s silly. I do. If he put on 50 pounds, what kind of player do you think he’d be? He wouldn’t be Pau Gasol. He wouldn’t have the mobility, the quick feet. Carrying around that kind of weight could lead to injuries … you’d just have a totally different player. Sometimes people measure toughness by your body build, and I think that’s the case with Pau. He just doesn’t look like a tough player. But in terms of not backing down, and being resilient, and playing hard, absorbing contact I put him up there with anybody. I don’t want Pau to come back next year 40 or 50 pounds heavier. That’s not what we want, and he’s a big guy anyway.

MT: Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich called him the most skilled big man in the NBA. You agree?
Kupchak: As we speak I look at the (big board*) behind you, and I’d have to go through every team. But if there were a handful of players, he’s certainly in that handful, and he may be No. 1. If you just were dropped at a Lakers’ game and you didn’t know who Gasol was, you wouldn’t be able to tell if he’s left or right handed. I think half his shots now come with his left hand, you can hardly tell. It’s a unique weapon to go into your spin while the defender doesn’t know what hand you’ll shoot with. He can pass, handle the ball, shoot with range. I’m sure if he were on a team that required him to score from all places, he could get to the point where he could make the (three-point) shot too.
Editor’s note: *Kupchak, like most if not all GM’s, has a big board with every player in the NBA on it by team and position.

MT: Moving over to the draft, the Lakers do not have a first round pick this season as it went to the Grizzlies in the Gasol trade, though you did pick up an extra second round pick from Memphis.
Kupchak: Yes, we have our and Memphis’s second-round pick, which right now I think are picks 43 and 58, and 43 is a good pick. You never know when you can get a pick, when a trade might pop up, so we prepare for the draft as if we could pick anywhere. In order to know who’s going to be there in the 40’s you need to know who’s going in the 30’s. So we go from 1-to-60, and we won’t get there until probably a day or so before the draft. But we’ll have it in order as to what we think we would do. In other words, if we had 60 picks, this is the order we’d select them. Clearly, the higher the pick, the higher your success rate is going to be, so you’d love to have a top 10 pick every year because you know you’re probably going to get a pretty good players. Not every time, but you probably will. The success rate actually drops dramatically after the top 10.

MT: You’re in a different situation from last year since only seven guys are currently under contract for next season (Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Artest, Vujacic and Walton), while Shannon Brown has an opt-out clause in his contract. You’d expect that this team will look different next season, but how does it affect your thought process:
Kupchak: Absolutely (it will look different). When you have free agents, you’d like to assume that they want to stay and that you could sign them. However, when July 1 rolls around, as we know, it doesn’t always work that way. So when we look at our roster, and the draft, you have to assume that players who are free agents may not be back. You have to plan accordingly. There’s no other way to do it.

MT: Obviously, Kobe and Vujacic are the only guards guaranteed under contract for next season. The assumption would be that you’d look at more free agent and potential rookie guards.
Kupchak: Yes, in our backcourt, you have Derek (Fisher) as a free agent, Jordan (Farmar) as a free agent and Shannon Brown could become a free agent. Fortunately, Kobe is back in the fold, Sasha is back, but yes, you have to assume that those three other guys may not be here and you’d better have a backup plan.