Midseason Review: Mitch Kupchak
After 43 games of the 2008-09 campaign, the Lakers have 35 wins. No matter how you think L.A. is playing, it’s certainly hard to expect anything more from the win column. To reflect on the season’s first half, we welcomed Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak onto Lakers.com.
MT: After advancing to the NBA Finals last season without Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, you knew you had a very good team. To what degree have the Lakers lived up to your expectations at the season’s midpoint?
Kupchak: The expectations were great, and I think there was a curiosity factor with a healthy Andrew Bynum. People didn’t know what to expect based on Trevor Ariza’s short window of opportunity with us last year; I’m not sure there was much expectation there. But certainly with Andrew coming back, people were very curious, and as I would expect myself they’d expect us to be a stronger team. We’ve had our share of small knickknack injuries and we haven’t really faced any extreme adversity so far. Jordan Farmar especially, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic all missed time and Kobe Bryant’s probably the most banged up of anybody but he continues to play. So where we are today, overall, we’re pleased. But we’ll be evaluated on how we conclude the season, not where we stand in January.
MT: Analysts and fans are quick to point to the Lakers depth as the team’s biggest strength. Yet when Phil Jackson was asked what he thought made his team stand out, he immediately recognized Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Your thoughts?
Kupchak: Our two best players, without a doubt, are Kobe and Pau, and they’re two of the best players in the NBA. You’re not going to win a lot of games unless you have great players, no matter who the coach is. We’re fortunate to have Kobe and Pau, and we also have an emerging player in Andrew who up until a few days ago was somewhat inconsistent. He had a big game (against the Clippers) and a nice game to follow it up (against Washington), so we’re hopeful that continues*. From a complimentary point of view, I can’t think of a better fit for Kobe than Derek Fisher. He’s been off the charts with his leadership and doing the little things that teams need to do in order to win close games, and can lead a team that has a lot of young players on it throughout the season. I do think we are a deep team, and that’s an asset in particular when you go through the dog days of the season, which is January, February and March. When you have injuries there’s a fatigue factor, you go on long road trips, and no matter how good you are you just might have a bad game or two on a road trip. If you’re deep, the coach can go to somebody on the bench and they might give the team a spark. Our bench is also part of the reason why we didn’t go out and replace Jordan Farmar when he got injured. If you’re deep, and you have an injury, you should be able to figure out a way to get through that period, and I think Phil Jackson did a great job of getting us through that period without making an acquisition. Guys like Lamar, Trevor and Sasha played addition minutes to help out.
*This interview was recorded before Bynum’s solid performance against Tim Duncan and the Spurs on Jan. 25.
MT: Towards that end, can you describe your interaction with Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti and his staff as you try to determine whether or not you need to tweak the roster? How does that information flow?
Kupchak: I actually communicate more with Gary than I do with Phil. When I was in Europe (earlier this week), Gary and I exchanged text messages once or twice a day regarding updates on the medical side of our team. Phil and I also communicated when I was out of town via text and e-mail, because I needed to know information on a daily basis regarding the injury situation. We’ve had a lot in the last three weeks with those guys I mentioned earlier, but Gary’s been in this business for over 20 years, and he knows that he has to communicate information that’s necessary for people to do their jobs, whether it’s the media, the coaching staff or me, and he’s great at it.
MT: A major question for any GM is not simply whether or not he or she is satisfied with the current roster, but what to do if a tantalizing deal comes along regardless of how well the team is playing. Could a tweak make a difference towards a championship heading into the February 19th trade deadline?
Kupchack: Yes, a tweak can make a difference in general. As we approach the deadline, there’s going to be a lot of activity. Some of it is forced activity, because the week before the deadline we’ll be in Phoenix for the All-Star game and the general managers are going to have meetings all day. We’re going to be together for six, seven hours, and you really can’t avoid discussions that involve players. You have a few breaks during the meetings, and you stand around and talk, so even if you didn’t want to be active on the phone, there would always be speculation and conversation (at the meetings). I don’t expect that to discontinue.
We’re not trying to break up the team, but I do have an obligation to make phone calls, to receive phone calls, and look out for not only the present status of this team but also the future of the team. We’ll see where that leads. I think our biggest challenge, because we are pretty deep at certain positions, is to try and keep everybody happy. I think Phil’s done a great job with that, because it’s not easy. We have guys that are young enough to be looking out for their career, which would be the contract they’re under now and future contracts, and they want to play. We’re not talking about guys who are trying to win their first ring and they’re all 33 to 34 years old, we’re talking about young players who are hungry and competitive. I think that’s a challenge for our coaching to keep this group hungry, content and liking each other, and to keep them moving in the right direction – towards winning a championship.
MT: This could be an entirely separate discussion, but in short, can you describe this roster that you built? Aside from Kobe Bryant, every player on the roster has come via the draft, a trade you made or through free agency, all on your watch.
Kupchak: Looking at the roster, a great many of the players are guys that we drafted: Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Sun Yue, while Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were drafted by Jerry West. To some degree, this team was built through the draft, and the person that’s basically in charge of the draft is Ronnie Lester; he does not get enough credit for the young players that were brought up through the ranks on this team. Some of the other players came through trades: Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm; and through free agency: Vladimir Radmanovic and Josh Powell. So it’s a pretty good mix, and we’re very pleased with the makeup of the team. We have scouts not only in this country but in Europe and in Asia, and you’d like to think that they make a difference when you’re putting together a team.
MT: There’s seldom a unanimous opinion amongst fans, media and skeptics, but it’s hard to find anyone saying a negative word about Trevor Ariza these days. He’s averaging 9.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, nearly two steals and most importantly has been terrific defensively. Your view?
Kupchak: He’s still a young player. You look at young players when they’re 17, 18 or 19, and they’re not NBA players at that time. But you’re hopeful that certain attributes that you consider essential are present. With Andrew, it was size/length and great hands. You interview kids and you know they’re good kids and they say all the right things, but you get a feel for those kids, make a decision and hope it works out. Trevor’s situation isn’t too different. He’s a player that we knew due to his attending high school here in Los Angeles and playing at UCLA for one year. We knew he had athleticism and was long, and had the ability to defend. We also knew his pitfalls: he didn’t shoot the ball well and wasn’t aggressive offensively, and preferred to put the ball on the ground to try and get to the rim. But he didn’t get a great chance in New York*, in fact his last year there didn’t go well, and he had some limited success in Orlando but they are very deep at the forward position with Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, and there just weren’t a lot of minutes to go around. I know the GM in Orlando (Otis Smith) was very apprehensive about making the deal, but he just – I think – did the right thing to help out Trevor. Fortunately for us, we were the recipient. He’s gotten a chance to play, and is still very young – only 23 – and he’s becoming a player. He really should be in just his second or so year in the NBA. But at the same time, (managing and evaluating the progress of young players) is difficult, but that’s what we’re forced to do more so than 10 or 20 years ago.
*Ariza was selected 43rd overall in the second round of the 2004 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks.
MT: Andrew Bynum just played his two best games of the season on back-to-back nights against relatively weak front lines. He went through a tough stretch in December, but is still averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 29 minutes per game this season. How is ‘Drew looking from your angle?
Kupchak: There’s no doubt that the talent is there, and he’s really worked on his conditioning and his body, and it’s changed enormously from his first year. He may have even grown an inch to be bigger than when he got here. But he may have been a little overweight in high school, and has turned into quite a physical specimen here. All that credit goes to Andrew, and although we’ve tried to give him a lot of resources with Kareem, our training staff and our coaching staff – Kurt Rambis has spent a lot of time with him – the player decides how he’s going to work, and Andrew has made the decision to work hard and he’s done that for the last three years. I think his play in the last few days is going to add to his confidence, and give his teammates confidence in his ability as well. If you can put up big numbers and win games, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. That’s hard to do – it really is. It may be harder against a guy like Dwight Howard or Yao Ming, but the rest of the guys are all NBA players. So that will go a long way with the confidence. We don’t expect him to put up those kinds of numbers every game, but he does have to grow at that position, and he has to get a feel for what’s necessary for him to compete and help his team win games. The staples that I do know we need every game would be rebounding, being a defensive presence and making a difference in the paint. He has to recognize when he’s getting double-teamed and when it’s not his night to score, and that you’ll miss a certain number of free throws and shots, but the consistent level of play has to remain. You can’t really go up and down. You can’t go from 42 points and 15 rebounds and then go down to six points and two rebounds, and that’s a challenge for young players. So that’s what he has to work on, but he’s a student of the game and he cares, and I don’t think there’s going to be any problem.
MT: To re-visit a conversation we had in October, why was it not beneficial to you to wait until after the season to re-sign Bynum?
Kupchak: I think both sides of that negotiation gave up something to try and get a deal done early. I think both sides had all the information necessary. Certainly you could have waited six or seven months, but then maybe we might not have been in such an advantageous position at that point in time. Vice versa could have taken place as well, where maybe Andrew wouldn’t have been in such a good position to negotiate. So, I think it was a calculated effort on both the player and management side.
MT: As such, you clearly seem to be comfortable that the deal was made before the season.
Kupchak: Yes. I don’t think there’s any doubt. But you’re looking into the future, and all you can do at the time is make decisions on the information you have at hand. You do the same thing when you make a trade. It’s a funny business where you’re forced to pay a player on what they’ve done in the past or what you think they may do. Just because they’ve done it in the past doesn’t mean they’ll continue to do it. And a lot of times, you’re forced to predict what they might do, and maybe they’ll do exactly what you think, maybe they’ll do more than what you think and a lot of times they’ll do less than what you think. So it’s really an inexact business. But here we are at the end of January, and are we comfortable with the deal we made? Yes. But he has to continue to improve, and the only way to do that is to continue to work and to be a good teammate.
MT: I want to read you a quote from Wizards head coach Ed Tapscott after L.A.’s 117-97 win Thursday night:
“You know what’s the most impressive thing about the Lakers? I watch Kobe Bryant who is clearly one of the dominant scorers in basketball today and maybe of all time, and I watched the way he made sure that every guy on the floor got shots. He shared the ball, he made sure Gasol got the ball in his spots, when Vujacic came in he made sure he got corner jump shots, he made sure Fisher curled and got his shots. I watched him when he could’ve taken shots at any time; made sure his teammates got quality shots so that they were into the game and that makes your big run harder, rebound more, defend better, that makes everybody on the team participate with greater zeal when you have that type of unselfishness and I kept making that point to some of our young guys. Watch how they share the ball even when the game is decided so to speak and you can go out there to look for your own numbers, they continued to share the ball and they were trying to get other guys shots. So that is a very impressive “team spirit” that I hope our guys aren’t impressed by, I certainly was.”What are your thoughts on Kobe’s development?
Kupchak: He’s been pretty clear for the last four or five years that if we got him the players, the team would get there. Seven to eight years ago, we had the players, and he did what he had to do. Then you go through a period where you make trades, trade away a great player who’s maybe heading towards the end of his career in Shaquille O’Neal, you had Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, a lot of those guys that last year where it was time for them to retire. There’s a natural downswing to your talent and experience level, and that was hard on Kobe, and it’d be hard for any player to live through two or three years of that. Fortunately we were able to, in a relatively short period of time, get him enough players he felt he could succeed with both individually and as a team. All Kobe ever wanted to do was win. That’s it. When you don’t have enough talent and you have to win games, you feel you have to do it yourself. When you have enough talent surrounding you, you know you don’t have to do that and you’ll do what he did yesterday (vs. Washington, 11 points, five assists, four rebounds in 28 minutes). I think that’s a good sign that he’s comfortable and confident with the group of players we have here right now.
MT: To clarify, it’s not that Bryant was necessarily selfish when he didn’t have the talent around him, it’s that he simply was doing what he thought needed to be done to win?
Kupchak: That’s right.
MT: Can you briefly address the Portland – Darius Miles situation?
Kupchak: I’m going to decline to discuss is specifically, because to be really accurate, you’d have to have a book out going through cap numbers, and you’d have to make reference to the statement or e-mail that was sent. But basically, I think the thing to understand is that professional basketball today deals with a complex environment in which we’re trying to make deals and put together teams, and we have something called a salary cap, and in addition we have something called a tax threshold. It’s challenging, and is something like a chess game – I like dealing with numbers and those challenges – but the problem is that it’s high stakes. You’re not playing with your buddy in an airplane; you’re at the big table. What took place in Portland had a lot to do with all those issues we just discussed, and it dealt in moving pieces. You had a player (Miles) who was released from Boston and went to Memphis, and there was a reason for that. He was then released and signed again, and it’s clear now that he’s playing pretty good basketball. So there was a lot that was going on, and to discuss it you’d really have to sit down with everything in front of you.
MT: Fair enough. In other news, can you take us through the next few months from your office?
Kupchak: With the trade deadline approaching, it will heat up. It just does. General managers of teams that aren’t doing well get very aggressive, and if they like players on your team, they’re going to call you. It’s our job to pick up the phone and have discussions.
MT: Today? Tomorrow? Has it already heated up?
Kupchak: Well, there have been bursts of activity and there have already been some significant trades. But historically – and not 100 percent of the time – there is the most activity in the days leading up to the deadline, and often times a number of significant trades made on the day of the deadline.
MT: Meanwhile, you just got back from a European trip with Ronnie Lester and are evaluating talent for the coming draft…
Kupchak: We’re looking at players in this country and other countries. I don’t have much to do with what goes on in the locker room at this point in the year, other than to talk to the coach and trainer to make sure all players are healthy – and there’s always something there – but basically we let the locker room group take care of themselves, especially when you have an experienced staff. As far as the European scouting trip goes … Every year, I try to get overseas at least once, sometimes not only to Europe but also to Asia. Ronnie Lester and I just returned from a European scouting trip for 10 or 11 days, and we have a full-time scout that lives in Italy, Adam Filippi, whose job it is to stay on top of all present, experienced and potential players in Europe. He looks at the schedule, picks out a time period and tells us that it’ll be a good time to come over. So we saw a lot of the upcoming young players that you might see in the draft this June, and at the same time you see guys that have been in the NBA before, or guys that have never made it but may have a chance next year as a free agent. The trips involve a lot of travel, and we trust our scouts, but my feeling is that on draft day or when it come to making a trade, you have to know the players yourself, so I try to see as much as I can with Ronnie.
MT: All right Mitch, thanks for taking the time.
Kupchak: Any time, it’s great to be on.