Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak joined us for an extended interview covering the team’s improved play out of the All-Star break, the reason for Andrew Bynum’s emergence and whether or not he’d consider trading the young center, Kupchak’s interaction with Phil Jackson and opinion of the coach’s accomplishment, his thoughts on watching Kobe Bryant hurt his ankle, the performance of offseason acquisitions Matt Barnes and Steve Blake and more:
Q: On balancing a desire for the team to be playing better during some of the pre All-Star break struggles, and trusting the coaching staff and players to figure it out because they’ve done it before:
Kupchak: We – Phil, ownership and myself – have all been around long enough to know that you’re not going to win every game. There are certain games that are travel games, that you know based on the schedule that it’s going to be a tough game to win. You see that it’s not a very tough team, but know that we could get blown out by 20. There are a number of games like that, such as the Charlotte game (Feb. 14) before the break or at Cleveland (Feb. 16), where I wasn’t completely surprised. But we did lose games that we probably shouldn’t have lost, and that creates concern because you know from experience that giving away games that you should have won, particularly at home, could come back to haunt you later in the season. That’s kind of where we are right now. We’ve played really well the last three weeks, made some strides in terms of bettering our position for the playoffs, but we’ve really had to play at peak efficiency and we don’t know how we’re going to end up yet. Had we won two or three of those games that we should have, we wouldn’t be in quite as tenuous a position. That said, if we can win a bunch of games going out, we’ll be in good shape. We don’t want to lose any games, even if you understand why you lost a game, but this group has earned the right to defend their title from last year. We were hoping that they’d be in a position to play their best basketball about this time of year, and it looks like they are. At this point going forward, the key is just stay healthy.
Q: On what it’s like watching Kobe Bryant roll an ankle as the team’s GM:
Kupchak: Kobe came down like he has a million times on a jump shot, and for some reason his ankle rolled instead of coming down straight. It can be as simple, as fickle as that. Until a guy gets up, you don’t know, but with Kobe, I have less concern. I always assume he’s going to get up more often than a lot of players will get up. But as I was watching, first of all, it’s an ankle. It’s not like you’re getting hit from the side on the knee and see the knee bend in. There are different degrees of severity when a guy goes down that run through your mind, but an ankle doesn’t make you nearly as concerned. And Kobe is just different, and it also helps that we had three days off this week.
Q: On the front office process in place during an injury like Bryant’s?
Kupchak: Head Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti will call me. Ownership wants to know as soon as I know, and Gary knows that, so I’ll get a call at halftime, a call after the game and a call from the bus.
Q: On his thoughts of how L.A.’s main offseason acquisitions, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake, have fit in:
Kupchak: Matt has been a pleasant surprise. The fact that we could sign him (was great), and the way that he plays is kind of seamless. Unfortunately he went out for seven weeks, but when he’s out there you don’t have to run plays for him, he is very competitive, he’s a slasher, he’ll get an offensive rebound, drift to the corner for threes … he’s not begging for the ball or asking for touches, and has been very productive on the court. Steve Blake has been fine – I don’t think there’s really anything I can criticize. I look at the effectiveness of the second unit, and I look at how much a coach plays a player, which tells you what the coach thinks the value of that player is, and Steve has played big minutes this year (20.3 per game). Certainly we could urge him to shoot more, but I’m not sure that’s necessary. If you have a point guard that’s going to shoot the ball a lot, then maybe Lamar (Odom) isn’t having the year he’s having? It’s hard to find a guy that’s comfortable not scoring, and people love to play with guys like Steve. You know that the harder you run, and if you’re open, he’s going to get you the ball. I have confidence in him taking the big shot if he’s open. In the future I’m sure we’ll ask more of him offensively, but right now he’s been fine.
Q: On a difference between the approach of a veteran like Blake and that of younger players like Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic in 2009-10.
Kupchak: Different stages of their careers. Blake is not out there trying to create his niche. He already has, and people know what he can do. Jordan and Sasha were young players who wanted to get out there and be the best they could be. That meant minutes. But if Lamar brings the ball up, Steve is happy just being a harassing defender. If he’s asked to take an open shot, he will. If he’s asked to make an assist, he’ll do that. That’s just a function of players being in different stages of their careers.
Q: On what he makes of Andrew Bynum’s recent dominance, highlighted by his 12.6 points, 14.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 64.2 percent shooting in March.
Kupchak: We know that Phil had a conversation with him four or five weeks ago asking him to do the things that will help us win … but I’m not sure you can tell a player to play well tomorrow in a meeting and all of a sudden he goes from 10 points and eight rebounds to 12 points and 18 rebounds, just on a conversation. I’m not sure I can point to one episode of something that caused him to play better, but to me, clearly his conditioning has been key. Being able to run the floor, being able to sustain a second and third effort is noticeable. It’s that time of year that he’s just in great shape. He didn’t play all summer, didn’t play all fall, didn’t really start playing until December, and he only had three or four practices before we threw him into games. Finally, he’s in NBA condition. He was also coming off an injury, so it takes some time to get the confidence back, feeling good about the knee.
Q: On if he meant that last statement literally about not trading Bynum for anybody:
Kupchak: Anybody. If he’s healthy at this level he’s at, you’d have to think about anything. In other words, you may not trade him for anybody. If he helps your team and he’s what you need, and we can advance in the playoffs, then why would you take a chance and do anything? A lot of it is the right fit, the right personality for a team, and I think we have a group of players right now that are unselfish in the big picture, I really do. We know the players we had from last year are, because they’ve been through it, but the guys we added in Blake and Barnes feel that way too, and know what’s at stake here. We know there are going to be rumors about most of the guys on this team, but that’s just the way it is. If we play at a high level and we win, nobody has anything to worry about.
Q: On if he thinks Ron Artest is still the NBA’s best perimeter defender:
Kupchak: He’s one of the best. I’m not sure I’d pick somebody else in a playoff environment to guard players at his position. I’d hate to have him hounding me for 48 minutes, I know that, with that level of strength and foot and hand quickness. He’s another good example of a guy that just fits in, not looking to get individual glory. He knows that comes with winning.
Q: On a conversation that’s been had several times: the advantages of L.A.’s big men:
Kupchak: Our strength is our size; I don’t think anyone would argue that. That allows us to be competitive in every game. Having a player who can close a game or take over a game like Kobe, having a defender like Ron, having a leader like Derek Fisher … those are pieces that fit. But if you have to look at a strength of our team, it would be that our guys are big and they are skilled. You look at, is there somebody that’s better than Pau out there at his position? Than Andrew? Than Lamar coming off the bench? Those are hard answers to come up with and say ‘yes.’
Q: On he has sensed that Lamar Odom’s off court life in the past year and a half has helped lead to what’s been his most consistent season:
Kupchak: Yes, based on what I see and what I hear. I’m not going to sit down and talk to players about their personal lives, that’s beyond the scope of what I do. If they come to me and want to talk, that’s fine. And yes, he’s playing his best basketball. What’s changed in his life in the last year or two? It looks to me like he’s found somebody that he can settle down with and be comfortable with, and have some stability. That happens to players as they get older, and he found everything he was looking for. It certainly hasn’t hurt his game, it looks to me like it’s helped his game.
Q: On how he runs his office with the uncertainty of the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring after the season:
Kupchak: We’re preparing as if nothing is going to change. There is no other way to prepare. We have the draft that is coming up at the end of June with four second round picks, we’re watching the teams that owe us the picks to see where they end up (Golden State, Miami and New York). That’s our primary focus this time of year, in addition to the day-to-day stuff with our team going to the playoffs. Then, we look to July 1 for free agent signings and the offseason market to improve your team.
Q: On how he thinks about the head coaching job, since Phil Jackson has maintained that this will be his last year:
Kupchak: I’ve been thinking about it for years. There have been no discussions – you’re not going to do that right now, the last thing you need is for a name or two names to get out there this time of year. There’s no rush, and to be honest with you, I’m going to march into Phil’s office at the end of the year and try to get him to stay another year. But it doesn’t sound that way. It sounds to me like he’s made his mind up, and last year I didn’t get that feeling. It’s premature to do that right now, but as a general manager, you’re always looking at people that you might have some interest in down the road.
Q: On trying to put the accomplishments of the team, and more specifically Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, into perspective:
Kupchak: It’s staggering. It’s a golden era in Lakers basketball right now. I think our fans do appreciate it. To be able to watch a guy like Kobe play at this level for so many years, to have a coach like Phil coach the team for 11 years and have the success he’s had, it’s just a god send for someone that lives in a town to watch this team. Part of Bryant’s greatness has been his durability. You know what that does for an organization to have a player of his status fill a roster spot every night? And clearly, our coach has just been great.
Q: On his recent scouting trip to Europe:
Kupchak: I went to France, Spain and Italy. (Assistant GM) Ronnie (Lester) and I were in nine cities in 10 days. You’re just going to watch practices and games, and that time of year in Europe the weather is not good, with rain and snow and cold the whole time. There are luggage issues, (Director of International Scouting) Adam (Filippi) missed a flight because of a connection due to a snowstorm, but by and large, it was a good trip. You see a lot of players for the draft, you see a lot of players that were drafted by other teams in case there is a trade down the road, and then there are a lot of free agents over there, Americans, that just get better. You may want to bring them into camp at some point. Overall, it was worthwhile.