Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sat down with Lakers.com to go over the current happenings in the basketball operations office, the latest on Dwight Howard's free agency, the team's financial situation with the new collective bargaining agreement, what he thinks is the most important element in building a team and more:
MT: Generally speaking, Mitch, where things are now in the Lakers' basketball ops office as you prep for the NBA Draft and look ahead at free agency?
Kupchak: It's a deadline-oriented business. There are certain dates throughout the year that, as you get closer to them, things pick up and heat up (around the NBA). The day after you lose in the first round, there isn't a lot of activity as a lot of teams are unwinding and meeting internally. The more teams that get beat in the playoffs makes more teams eligible for trades as they are then allowed, but there haven't been any trades thus far. By and large, as you approach the draft, you'll see a lot more activity. It was important that the lottery was set, which lets teams know what they have as the business ramps up.
MT: You were "hopeful" and "optimistic" during exit interviews on April 30 about Dwight Howard returning in part because of the unique opportunity of playing for the Lakers and everything that encompasses especially for a franchise-type player. What's your feeling more than a month later?
Kupchak: No different from what I said at the end of the season (link above). We have a dialogue, and we do talk, but we're not allowed to negotiate until July 1. We talk about when he's getting in the gym and what he's doing, how his back is feeling and things like that. From the conclusion of the season to July 1 is two months, so it's important to work on your body and your game in that time.
MT: Once free agency hits, it's been reported that Howard will visit some other teams. How do the Lakers go about that free agency process with him?
Kupchak: Dwight has earned the right to become a free agent, and he probably will be recruited and perhaps make a couple of visits. That being the case, I would hope that we'd have a chance also before he makes his decision.
MT: And that would be your opportunity to sit down again, go over your plan and make your case as to why he should stay?
MT: What would you want to convey to him?
Kupchak: We would try to do what the other teams will do, which is convince him that this is the spot for him. I think we have an advantage in that he's played here for a year. I'm biased – I think this is the best city to live in with the best fans in the NBA. There are certain things that you remind him of or talk to him about, and you hope that it plays in your favor.
MT: It would seem that you can't do much planning or looking at the roster for next season until Howard makes his decision? Does that dictate everything else?
Kupchak: If there's one thing we're looking at this summer, it's what Dwight is going to decide to do. That is the major moving piece. That will determine a lot about what we do. It's the one decision we will have to wait on. Then we will try to have a plan a, plan b, plan c depending on what happens. It moves quickly, so it's not like you can go to a plan b with certainty. There will be 29 other teams looking to improve their teams on July 1. But all of the "what if" scenarios will be talked about, reviewed and ready to go. We spend a lot of time on those what ifs, contingency plans. Every day brings more information in this league – coaches get signed up, and so on, which gives you more insight into what may happen in the summer. But when we get closer to the draft and July 1, it gets more juicy.
MT: Is it fair to say you've been working closely with (executive VP of player personnel) Jim Buss for years, with his role continuing to evolve as Dr. Buss backed off slightly in day-to-day operations?
Kupchak: Over the years, Jim got more and more involved. I don't know when it began, but around eight or 10 years ago. That's not to say Dr. Buss was any less a decision maker, but Jim was the person to whom I spoke most of the time, and then he would speak to Dr. Buss most of the time. But we still met as a group often.
MT: And with the passing of Dr. Buss, you and Jim continue to run things on the basketball side and (executive VP of business operations) Jeanie Buss on the business side. Has anything changed in how you conduct your business?
Kupchak: Correct, basketball decisions will primarily be made between Jim and myself. But it's important that all executives communicate, and I think we're doing a pretty good job of that.
MT: How have you processed your emotions since Dr. Buss passed?
Kupchak: There is always something that happens or that you look at that reminds you of him, and what he accomplished with this sport and this franchise in Los Angeles. Those types of memories will never, ever go away. Certainly as time goes on, it will get easier. I would think for the family, it is still difficult. There's still a lot of emotion there, and understandably so. I think in this city, whether you're a fan or an employee or a family member, his loss is significant.
MT: To review: from last season's assistant coaching staff, assembled by Mike Brown, Eddie Jordan is now the head coach at Rutgers and Steve Clifford for the Charlotte Bobcats. Bernie Bickerstaff and Chuck Person were not retained. Darvin Ham is still around but has a fluid situation pertaining to next season, and player personnel coach Phil Handy is going to Cleveland to work on Brown's staff. That leaves Mike's brother Dan D'Antoni as the only assistant coach locked in for next season. Mike has said he wants to have a smaller staff, and plans to bring in two more full time assistants, plus two player personnel coaches, as we get into the summer. Do you have a timeline for those decisions?
Kupchak: We spend a lot of time talking about the staff. Mike was in here today talking about it with me. We don't stand in the way of a coach improving his position with another team, so with Steve Clifford going to Charlotte and a couple of other guys going to the bench (of other head coaches). It's kind of a carousel, so to speak, and I believe there are four or five head coaching jobs in the league still to be determined. We're monitoring that, and some of the names of guys that may be considered on some of those teams may be considered by us for assistant coaching positions.
MT: Regarding the new CBA, have you thought more about using the amnesty provision this summer?
Kupchak: It's a tool that we're aware of. We have not decided if we will use it. It's just a tool we know is available. We feel our players have value, but there is always a financial component to this business and the new collective bargaining agreement made some significant changes that we need to be aware of.
MT: Since you are an over-the-cap tax payer, you do not have the benefit of the full mid-level exception, but only the mini-mid level exception and veterans minimums as things now stand?
Kupchak: Right now, that is correct. To paraphrase the rule: if you're a tax payer, you get the mini-mid, which is about $3.1 (million) per year. If you're a non tax payer, you get the full mid level, which is about 5.1, and goes up several years at a certain percentage.
MT: So that is somewhat limiting, obviously. Draft pick wise, you have only one second round pick (No. 48) in the as of today, but is it accurate that you prepare to make a selection at every pick, 1-60, should you be in any such position on draft day?
Kupchak: You try to know all the players, but some of it is out of your control. For example, the agents aren't going to let you see the top 10 guys, because they know you don't have a top 10 pick, so they won't send those players here to work out for the Lakers because they feel it's a waste of time. They're going to send them to the teams that are in the lottery. But by and large, we try to figure the draft out one through 60 as best we can.
MT: There's a diamond in the rough every once in a while, but is it almost always a long shot to immediately help a veteran team with a pick as low as No. 48?
Kupchak: It's a challenge. Even in the lottery, there's a likelihood that a player is not going to help you that year. Often times, the higher someone is drafted, the more likely he is to help you that year. With a veteran team, it's hard to say that a player drafted in the mid-second round will make an impact next year. Assuming our team next year is similar to the team it was this year, and also understanding that we have several free agents, probably the best way to improve this team would be through free agency, and even that's limited. Hopefully you can use your mini-mid, but most of the time it will fall towards the (veteran's) minimum contracts, and you want to make good selections there. But you're not going to get really good, productive young players at a minimum salary. You'll end up getting the older player who's had a good career that's looking to contend for a championship, like Antawn Jamison last season.
MT: My understanding is that the hugely punitive repeater tax wouldn't come into play until the fourth year?
Kupchak: Right. The fourth year. Last year (2011-12) was year one, this past season (2012-13) was year two, next year (2013-14) is year three and 2014-15 is year four.
MT: And right now, Steve Nash is the only player under contract for that season … so if you don't go over the luxury tax either this coming season or in 2014-15, you avoid the repeater tax.
Kupchak: It is within our control to avoid that, yes. It's something that we did intentionally, where we have a lot of financial flexibility for that season.
MT: The Lakers have always had great players in Los Angeles, with very few seasons serving as exceptions. How do you think about the franchise's future as you look at the next few seasons?
Lakers: I do think we have advantages. Historically, this organization, via ownership beginning in 1960 has fielded competitive teams. We think the city sells itself, and we have a very passionate, wide fan base. It's also very competitive, the rules have changed a little bit, but we do have financial flexibility a year and a half from now. It can be used a lot of different ways. You don't just have to focus on free agency; you can take a contract. If a player doesn't fit into someone's roster from a salary perspective – maybe due to the repeater tax, for example – maybe you find a guy that way. There are a lot of ways you can use the space that we will have, and we're looking forward to having that flexibility.
MT: What's the most difficult thing to do as you build a team?
Kupchak: The hardest thing to do in this league to get players who have talent. The next hardest thing to do is for the coach to figure out the best way to have that group of talent play together and win games. And you have to have a coach that has the ability to assess the talent level and how to use it. Mike has shown that he is flexible. Now that he has a feel of our players and their talent level, I'm confident that Mike will be flexible and get the most out of them next year.
MT: With the evolution of talent in the game and the rule changes involving hand checking and the like, the game seems to have gotten faster. What D'Antoni ran in Phoenix seems to have played a significant role. But the rim is still 10 feet tall, so is the game ever really going to go away from extensive post play? So the question is: how do you look at how the game has developed and will continue to evolve when you think about building a roster into the future?
Kupchak: It still comes down to talent. It's not like you have a pool of players where you get to draft 12 guys of your choosing to compose a team. You pick one, then another team picks one, and so on. Most of the time you select talent, and the coach looks at the talent on the team and finds out the best way to win. If you don't win, but you have talent, you can always make trades.
MT: So, regardless of what you think you want to run in advance, you ultimately have to just acquire as much talent as you can and then try to figure out the best system to maximize the talent, which is generally what the Lakers have done? Or if we look at the Spurs, as much as they've had continuity, Gregg Popovich also tweaked the system majorly around Tony Parker a few years ago, when it had been catered more to Tim Duncan in previous title runs... Kupchak: A little bit, but Duncan is still an All-Star Center, Parker doesn't get enough credit as one of the best ballhandling guards in the NBA, and Manu Ginobili has been there forever and knows exactly how to play. When you have your framework, you can put players around it.
MT: Then to your point, regardless of what they run, the elite talent has been there and must be for any team hoping to win…
Kupchak: That's right.