GM Q & A: The Draft and Coaching Vacancy
The primary focus for Mitch Kupchak and his basketball operations staff this time of year typically centers on the activities prior to the June 26 NBA Draft. This year, the Lakers are also looking for a new coach after Mike D’Antoni’s resignation on April 30. We caught up with Kupchak in his office to discuss both topics:
Mike Trudell: The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery is coming up quickly (May 20). What are you and your staff focused upon?
Kupchak: The Chicago combine (May 15-16) is really our focus right now. There is a general manager’s meeting on Wednesday, then the combine, and right after we get back (next Tuesday) is the lottery. We’ve had a busy spring. Obviously with Mike (D’Antoni) resigning, that’s been consuming to a degree. We don’t intend to hire a coach any time soon, but the thought process has begun. That’s a factor in the offseason this year.
MT: Does that pull any focus away from the draft?
Kupchak: Yeah, but as you mentioned, May 20 is the lottery, and it’s hard to focus 100% on the draft until you know where you’re drafting. If the stars all line up and you get No. 1 instead of No. 9, there’s a difference, and it’s impossible to schedule workouts because the agents won’t cooperate until they know where you’re drafting. That part of it has proved uneventful, and probably won’t change until the 20th. We are working on setting up some interviews, and we’ve been successful, but you’re not going to really get moving on it until the agents know where you’re drafting.
MT: So if an agent thinks his client is going to be drafted in the Top 3, he’s not going to arrange a workout with a team drafting sixth or seventh?
Kupchak: That’s right. Every agent has a different approach to his player. For example, if he thinks his player is a top 10 or 15 pick, he may be happy with that and not work out for anybody. Having said that, players that may or may not be first round picks want to come work out, because they want to prove to you that they’re better than where they are projected. They may not be happy being a projected second round pick and feel they have nothing to lose. The draft order is the most important thing right now.
MT: But … you’ve been preparing all season, really, and have seen all of these players. Even if you still would like to gather a lot more information, you could make your selection if you had to draft tomorrow, right?
Kupchak: That’s right, if we had to make selections today, we would … everybody would. But we’re tied into the calendar and the way business has been conducted for years, which is: Chicago; the lottery; workouts in our gym; interviews; and physical results. There is a lot more information to be had.
MT: Does it feel any different this year knowing that this will be the highest Lakers pick since James Worthy in 1982? Andrew Bynum (2005) and Eddie Jones (1994) both went at No. 10, while George Lynch went 12th in 1993. This pick can fall no lower than No. 9, and is much more likely to stay at No. 6 or 7 if you don’t move into the top three.
Kupchak: It’s what we’ve had to look forward to. We had a year marked by injuries and losses, so there wasn’t a lot to garnish out of the season. That said, we did get a look at some young players, guys we think belong in this league and have a future in this league. So that was a plus. But right now having not made the playoffs, the draft is our first step, and that is exciting.
MT: It’s literally just the second top 10 pick in your tenure. But … how much of a difference is there in this particular draft if you move up into the top three, or if you stay at pick six or seven?
Kupchak: It’s hard to say. I think everybody has a feel for what players they think will be one, two and three, and if you’re drafting at six or seven you won’t get one of those guys. But let’s see. Physicals and individual workouts can change a lot of things, and there is always a surprise or two. So other than the obvious, which is it’s better to pick one, two or three, I’m going to reserve judgment.
MT: To shift over to the coaching vacancy, does having only three players on the roster right now for next season change how you approach the hire?
Kupchak: You do take into consideration the make up of your roster. Although I won’t rule out hiring a coach prior to the lottery on May 20, I think it’s likely that we don’t, because that’s really the first step in terms of additional information for this franchise. Let’s find out what kind of pick we have. That may even help us decide what direction to go with for our coach. It will be a consideration.
MT: I’m sure you’d like to hire a coach that will be in Los Angeles for years and years, but the head coaching job seems more fleeting than ever right now. Why is that?
Kupchak: That is always the ideal thing, yes. But coaching is a tough occupation. We’ve seen, in the last year or two, coaches that you’d never think would be fired get fired despite their achievements and records. It’s really a cost of doing business in this league. Coaches love their work and they get compensated very well. I know they’d love to stay in one place for eight to 10 years, but the reality is, the average tenure is (far less lengthy). We don’t want to have a coach for two or three years, we’d love to have one for seven or eight years, but it’s a tough job. There are a lot of young coaches, a lot of older coaches: it’s very competitive. Despite the glamour and the compensation, it is a difficult job.
MT: Why is that? And what do you want in this next coach?
Kupchak: Even when we do projections in our business, and that falls to the front office, all the coaches really want to know about is the next game and that season. Coaches are defined by their record. As basketball operations employees, we’re forced to look into the future a little bit, and do some planning. Having said that, it’s hard to plan beyond three or four years. As much as you’d love to say you’re going to get a coach for 12 or 13 years, the reality is that you can’t, and we don’t plan for that. If you can get a coach for three or four years and have success, I think that’s all that the coach and the team can ask for. Maybe you go another year or two, maybe it’s five or six, but that’s a pretty good run for both parties.
MT: Kobe Bryant had this to say about Jim and Jeanie Buss on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last week: “Jimmy and Jeanie both are really determined and excited about the possibilities of next season and rebuilding this, building on their father’s legacy and everything that he’s accomplished. They’re taking the challenge extremely, extremely seriously; they’re both on the same page and they want nothing but excellence here, so I have no doubt that we’ll make it happen.”
What’s your level of communication with Bryant and the Buss family now heading into the final two years of his contract extension?
Kupchak: It’s always been good. I don’t see any reason why that will change.
MT: You had an injury that kept you out for a long time before a return, and Kobe has played only six games since tearing his Achilles in April of 2013. Bryant says he’s 100% healthy right and will be fully ready to go for next season. What do you expect from him?
Kupchak: He will be productive and effective, and that was contemplated when we gave him the extension. He’s not going to be the player he was athletically, physically, when he was 24. He looked different then; he was thin, loaded with unabashed energy. Kobe at 36 won’t be the same, but he’ll be better in a lot of ways.
MT: Because you can make an argument that he still has the best pure basketball skills in the NBA, with his shooting, play-making, footwork, post up ability, touch, and so on?
Kupchak: I’d put him up there with anybody, yes. Experience and knowledge, too. He’ll be effective.
MT: You’ve been criticized for the contract extension that was given to Bryant. How does it factor into the way you build this team over the next two seasons, with salary cap implications and so on, and how would things look different if you’d given him less money?
Kupchak: When we gave Kobe the extension, we took a lot of factors into consideration, including the factors you just mentioned. We felt it was the thing to do. We’re still in a position to be a big player in the free agent market. Signing Kobe when we did, we felt, gave us one of the top two or three free agents that would be available this summer. We had the rare opportunity to get that done and not have to wait until July 1. Everybody can debate whether they would have waited or not, but our mindset was: ‘This is somebody we can get done now, and we still have a chance to be a player financially with free agency.’ Cap space is valuable and you don’t want to misuse it. You do have to use it, but you don’t have to use it going forward unless you want to.