We spent some time with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak prior to the team's 6-game road trip to get a general sense of what's going on in his office.
Kupchak discussed the trade deadline and imminent cut down date, what the team could currently offer a potential free agent addition, the rules for bringing in a player from China or Europe, his priority in addressing the current roster, his analysis of the coaching staff in the compressed season, Kobe Bryant's play, relationships between star players and more:
MT: Let's first go through the upcoming deadline dates, if we could. We know that the trade deadline is March 15, but could you define the "cut down" date and what it means for you from a strategic standpoint?
Kupchak: The cut down date is on February 10th, and it applies to the fact that a lot of players in this league are on non-guaranteed contracts. In other words, for every day a non-guaranteed player is with the team, they get paid for that day, but if they should be cut or waived, payment stops. Beginning Feb. 10, if you are on an NBA roster and your contract was not guaranteed, it immediately becomes guaranteed for the rest of the year.
MT: You have maintained that both small and big deals could happen at any time this season. Is that a fair generalization?
Kupchak: It's my job to look at everything, small or big, to try and improve the team. We continue to look at everything, and if there's something that we can do today to improve the team for this season and into the future, we'll consider it.
MT: I know you can't talk about specific players you'd like to sign or that may have come up in rumors, but barring a trade, since you're over the luxury tax, you can only offer the minimum if you were to add a player?
Kupchak: If we signed a player right now, all we have available is the minimum, pro-rated twice. It's pro-rated for a lockout-shortened season, and then for the number of days left in the season. If the player was desirable and had four or five options, some teams do have more money than the minimum, like the mini mid-level. That all comes into play.
MT: With at least four players on the roster — the recent second round picks — on non-guaranteed deals, how might the cut down date affect your flexibility going forward, and what moves you might make?
Kupchak: There are only 15 roster spots on a team, so you have to manage that roster accordingly. If you needed a roster spot and had a guy on a guaranteed contract, you'd either have to trade him, or waive him. But if you waive him, you have to pay him (for the full season). And yes, it gives you less flexibility, having more guaranteed contracts. The collective bargaining agreement and the rights afforded players in a competitive market make it so that the good players, and even a lot of marginal players, have guaranteed contracts. Some guys who are fringe players or second round picks don't have the leverage yet, so often, they are happy to take a non-guaranteed deal because that's all they can get.
MT: There are some players playing in China or elsewhere around the world right now with rights held by NBA teams, either as restricted or unrestricted free agents. What's your understanding of what it would take to sign one of those players for the remainder of the season, once available?
Kupchak: There is no set date. The bottom line is that if you're a member of FIBA, which the NBA is, we have to recognize other members of FIBA. Most European leagues and the Chinese league are members, so in order to get a player eligible to play in the NBA there has to be a letter of clearance approved by FIBA. We've heard about potentially having players available when the Chinese playoffs are over … or on Feb. 15 … or when a team loses and their season is over. We don't know for sure, but you still have to get clearance first through FIBA, and FIBA has to get clearance through the team the player played for through that country's affiliate of FIBA. For example, let's say there is a player playing for the Chinese team in Beijing, and we wanted that player, we'd request through the NBA a letter of clearance. The NBA would contact FIBA, which would contact the team in Beijing, and so on. The point is, until the letter is actually received by an NBA team -- even if a guy seems like he'd be available -- we can't count on it. With all that said, I do expect some of these players to be available from the middle of February through the first or second week in March.
MT: What's your level of communication with Jim Buss, and what have your recent conversations centered upon regarding the roster?
Kupchak: Jim and I talk on a regular basis, several times a week and in person several times a month (like today), and it's almost always about where we are as a team, how we can improve now and into the future. What about, in terms of changing the roster, depends where you are at a certain point. When Steve Blake went down, there was some immediate urgency to look around and see if there were another ball-handling guard out there; in the meantime, our coaches have given our two rookies a chance. I think they both have a bright future, but in the last week (Andrew) Goudelock has given that second unit an unexpected boost. Teams are going to scout him now and teams will adjust, and try to take away the things he does and he'll have to adapt, but that's just how it is as an NBA player. Still, that's lightened our sense of urgency a bit regarding the backcourt. But in general, when you look at our team, I know Fish (Derek Fisher) gets tired of hearing it but he isn't as young as he used to be, and Steve did go down with an unexpected injury, so you could say to yourself the area where we're lacking the most is in the backcourt. You still have to look at what's available that's better than what you have, and what it's going to cost. We do that. Guys that were waived, that are free agents, players in Europe or China ... but generally speaking, looking at our roster, we have an older backcourt that has to be addressed at some point.
MT: Would you like to address it before the trade deadline?
Kupchak: Well, if there were a way for us to get a 25-year-old, All-Star, ball-handling guard we'd love to do it … but that's not likely in February. So you look at other alternatives, and see if it's better than what you have. That's all.
MT: Kobe's play has spoken for itself this season, his scoring climbing back up to 30 points per game for the first time since 2006-07, and his legs looking like they gained three extra years. To what degree were you aware of his offseason treatment in Germany?
Kupchak: During the lockout we weren't in the loop, as we could not communicate with Kobe, but word got back to us that he had gone to Germany. In general, we don't worry too much about Kobe and his taking care of himself. He seems to always be on the cutting edge.
MT: For all the miles Bryant has put on his body … literally leading all players in history in playoff minutes already and still at this level?
Kupchak: He is a marvel. He really is. Knock on wood, to play so many years at such a high level, big minutes every game - I'll knock on wood again - it's just tremendous. If you have played in this league or worked for a team and know what these guys go through physically, it's mind-boggling that someone could put together this kind of run, all while playing at such a high level. And he's adjusted his game as he's needed to; he's learned.
MT: Going back to probably every team in NBA history, star players on the same team always seem to have a pretty interesting and important relationship. What have you made out of the dynamic between Bryant and Pau Gasol, who ultimately have gotten along extremely well, but like any great players seem to have moments of – shall we say – getting their point across a certain way?
Kupchak: It is rare that I'd get too involved, but I trust both Kobe and Pau. They're both intelligent, and while at times it may look like Kobe is more aggressive and prodding, Pau has his way of getting his point across as well. Whether it's on the court, or in print, that's part of being a competitor and being a leader. Coaches also participate, whether it was Phil or Mike, whether it's in a closed locker room or through a reporter. There are ways, and things you do and say to inspire a player. Now, it's been rare when anything has gotten out of hand with any players, and I've had to step in; certainly with Phil here that was very rare. I generally watch from afar and smile at times, reading between the lines. But you know what they're doing. Sure.
MT: You hear about Larry Bird and Kevin McHale having a back and forth, for example, and I'm sure there were some interesting locker room moments on the Showtime Lakers teams you were on…
Kupchak: Yes, I played on that team for a few years, and there was a lot going on. You had a former MVP in Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper – a lot of very strong personalities. Getting the most out of a group of players sometimes requires somebody to say something. A lot of times it doesn't go over perfectly, but it's necessary. Sometimes it wakes you up, sometimes it gets you angry. Sometimes it translates into "I'll show him." Who knows. But I trust the coaches to manage it, and it's been rare that a coach has come to me and said, 'Hey Mitch, can you take care of this.' Mike is a veteran, certainly Phil was a veteran.
MT: Does Gasol get his due credit in the circles in which you operate around the NBA?
Kupchak: I think he does. He was All-NBA second team last season, which is named by the coaches, and to me that means you are one of the top 10 players in the league. That's pretty good. You could argue that Pau's the most skilled big man in the league, and I think I could win that argument with almost anybody. But every player brings something different, whether it's personality, athleticism or skills. It all depends upon what you want as a fan. Pau doesn’t get points for being flashy, and maybe that weighs against him. If you look at him on the court, he looks graceful, not big and powerful and overly aggressive … but he competes. I don't think there's more skilled big man in the game, and we're lucky and happy to have him.
MT: We looked into the much-improved 3-point shooting from the past four games, perhaps in part due to finally getting some practice time for spacing and execution, which would rank first in the NBA after the extremely slow shooting start. Is this more what you expected when bringing Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy to add to what you had, especialy considering how many guys draw double teams?
Kupchak: Yes, I think certainly everyone in our basketball operations office and on our coaching staff was surprised at how much we were struggling to shoot threes, because of the roster. You'd think the 3-point shooting would go up a little bit from last season. Maybe things like learning the offense, getting comfortable, knowing where the shots are coming from all helped. Metta (World Peace) struggled getting comfortable with the second unit, so maybe he'll start to shoot better. It's encouraging to hear what you said about the last four games.
MT: With a truncated training camp due to the lockout and the league's busiest early schedule, what have you made of Mike Brown and his coaching staff?
Kupchak: A coach and his system is going to help, but at this level when you play 82 games, it's about talent. If you have a lot of talent, coaching staffs are typically going to win a fair share of games. Our staff has had a tough act to follow, with Phil Jackson's Hall of Fame, 11-championship career as a coach, but they've embraced the challenge. They had a shortened training camp, but there's no question to their dedication and how hard they work. They've been received by the players with great enthusiasm, and I think our players want to play for them. They do a good job at practices, as well, so that’s all good. As I mentioned, there are certain areas of our roster that need to be improved, which falls on my shoulders. Having said all that, we have had a favorable home schedule that we mostly took advantage of, despite the two games (vs. Chicago and Indiana) that you could argue that we should have won, but we need to win some road games. All in all, I think we're probably within striking distance of where many thought we would be. But we played an awful lot of games in a short period of time to start the season, and I think you can look around the league and in a week or two begin to tell how things will play out. For the first third of the season, especially for a new staff, much of the time is spent figuring out the rotation, but when we get back from this trip, we'll be almost 30 games into the season, and we should have a better idea.