Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak addressed assembled beat writers in Washington via conference call to discuss Kobe Bryant's two-year contract extension.
Q: On the rationale to extend Kobe Bryant’s contract for two more years and $48.5 million:
Kupchak: All along, it’s been our position for years now. I can remember back to 2004-05 when we were recruiting Kobe when he was a free agent. Our line has always been: “You started as a Laker and it’s our intent to have you play your complete career here and end your career as a Laker.” So, that’s been our position for years. I think since that summer – I’m not sure the exact year – when we had a busy August and we ended up going to the Finals that year. Since that year, that’s been Kobe’s position, too. This is the place he wanted to end his career and obviously getting to 20 years was something he never contemplated years ago, but as he went through year 15, 16, 17, here we are. Twenty years is actually a realistic number. That’s been the organization’s position. Clearly, we had options to wait till the summer, which creates a lot of other kinds of challenges when you’re in an open market. We could have waited two, three or four weeks from now, and now you’re negotiating during the season with the player and that’s never a good thing, either. We just felt after a month or so of discussion, looking at what this may do to us in the summer in terms of our cap and our plans, and without going into great detail, we do maintain flexibility. The uncertainty of the summer is behind us now. We know we have Kobe in the fold for this year and two more years. The negotiation went pretty smoothly in terms of arriving at a number that as reported makes him the highest paid player in the league next year, the year after and of course this year as well. As I mentioned, we continue to have flexibility during the offseason not knowing what may take place during the offseason with these free agents. People continue to look at the offseason as the year to get a free agent, which is true. But for financial flexibility, it (helps) in a lot of ways in terms of making deals, so we do maintain that as well. In a capsule, that’s where we are on the whole thing. We looked at his career, we looked at what we think he’s going to do when he gets back, and the reality is, two years from now, we’ll look back and see what he actually did do. Maybe we got a deal, maybe we didn’t. Those are all factors. It wasn’t just a negotiation. A lot of it had to do with what he’s meant to this franchise. Not all of it, at all. A lot of it had to do what we think he’ll do this year, and the next year or two.
Q: On negotiating with Kobe during the season, and not waiting to get a sense of what he can do on the court before offering him the extension:
Kupchak: Well, we do have a sense. You guys don’t have the sense we do because I’m in the building every day watching. He has not played in an NBA game. We don’t have that sense. We (know) historically what players have done with this injury. We have consulted with the physicians and the doctors in terms of re-injury and stuff like that. The bottom line is that everybody expects him to get back on the court and to have a complete recovery. I don’t think anybody does not expect that. The gray factor is obviously at 35 years old is how his game is going to change a little bit. We think it is going to change a little bit. He’s acknowledged that it will. But I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll play in this league at a high level. I don’t know if that means points or what that means. But that was our comfort level. We could have waited two weeks but I don’t know what two weeks does to the decision-making process. We could have waited two-and-a-half months, then maybe you have more information, but then you’re deep into the season. As I said, you don’t really want to open up a negotiation and it could cut both ways. We just felt that to the negotiation, there was no desire to cut back on complete flexibility. Obviously he took a pay cut – a substantial pay cut. A lot of people look at it and say it’s not a huge financial pay cut, but it was a negotiation that was accomplished pretty quickly and fair on both sides. We’re comfortable.
Q: On the thought process behind any contract extension talks with Pau Gasol:
Kupchak: We have not had any discussions with Pau. I’m sure I will and where that leads, I’m not sure right now. A lot has to do with different variables. I’m not saying something won’t be considered and I’m not saying something will be. I’m just saying that that’s something that hasn’t come up. There was no reason for anything to take place until we signed Kobe. We’ll kind of roll with that and see where it leads.
Q: On how much management weighed Kobe’s new contract, or if they talked with Kobe about his new extension, in terms of preserving cap space for 2014 and 2015:
Kupchak: The two variables were really how can we compensate Kobe and at the same time maintain financial flexibility. But our feeling was based on existing contracts, could we compensate Kobe on the manner we felt he deserved and at the same time be able to have that substantial flexibility. We don’t have a minimal amount of flexibility. Then you have to weigh what’s going to happen this summer. Everybody forgets that Kobe would to be a free agent this summer, too. We got who we feel is one of the top free agents available this summer, and we still have the ability to pursue other free agents or other opportunities between now and the trading deadline, or this summer, or the next summer based on the flexibility.
Q: On if he feels the Lakers have enough cap flexibility to build a championship contender in the next couple years with Kobe under contract:
Kupchak: I think we do, I think we do. The challenge is there. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t make it any easier for anybody. It’s restrictive and challenging, but yes, I do believe we can.
Q: On if what he saw from Kobe in practice last week was enough for management to give him the extension and money amount:
Kupchak: How can I answer that question no? We signed him. Like I said, it was more than two, two-and-a-half practices. I’ve been in the building looking at him working out for a month, a month-and-a-half. I’m not going to say that’s 90 percent of the reason why we did it – and I’m making a joke – but you’re right. Making a decision based on two, two-and-a-half practices, that’s not why we did it. I’ll go back to what I said at the beginning. We looked at what he’s done for the franchise, what we think he’ll do and then what he does two years from now and looking back on it. We’ve factored in his progress, the two-and-a-half practices, the times I’ve watched him work out that you’re not aware of and that he’s probably not aware of. Historically, what this injury has done to players, have they made it back,what the doctors indicated to us – all those things were factors in the decision. To say that this is something you decided on two, two-and-a-half practices, I get where you’re coming from, but that’s not how we approached the whole thing.
Q: On if he would have been comfortable giving Kobe this extension a month ago:
Kupchak: I don’t know if it would have changed. He was on the court a month ago. You guys may not have seen it. I don’t know if that relates to China because I know he was on the court working out before China, so I guess that’s about a month. I’m not sure that would have changed anything, but like I said, it’s kind of a trade off. Yeah, we could wait two weeks more or a month more, but we may not know more in a week or two. We may know more in a month or two, but now you’re in the season. We weighed all those factors and just chose based on our comfort level to get this done now.
Q: On his expectation level and what he sees Kobe doing this season when he returns:
Kupchak: I don’t think he’s contemplating nor do I think he’s ready to play now. I’m not saying down the road, he might not be, but even if he did play a period where the game at that level during an actual NBA game is really quick and fast moving, you can’t just sit out seven, eight months and hop back into a game. So I expect for a normal person, I would expect us to monitor his time and he would need some time to acclimate his conditioning. You can work out all you want in a gym, but conditioning in an NBA game is completely different, and then the style of play. There’s going to be a feel-out period where he’s going to have to decide, along with our staff, how he can best help the team. I do expect him to have an influence on the game. He will be able to score, provide leadership and toughness to our team and confidence. We’ve had some stretches where we’ve really played well, but I’ve seen some times where you could use somebody that has great experience that you can go to at certain times of the game whether that be at the end of the period or the end of the game, so those kinds of things. Then it’s going to be a feeling out process. But he will be back and he will play at a high level. I can’t begin to say he’s going to average 27, 28 points like he did last year. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
Q: On being under the cap come the summer time in terms of financial flexibility:
Kupchak: There are things called cap charges. To create cap room – and every team goes through this – you really have to renounce players with minimum charges. The bottom line is that you could take players and deals and you’re not hindered so much by financial decisions (punitive tax). There are teams out there that are very close to or in the tax. That’s a major concern or challenge in the NBA today. It’s something that continues to go up by design. There’s a lot of ways in addition to being able to pursue a free agent that you can pursue it. We have done some things in the past where we have used it to our advantage.
Q: On if he considers the Kobe contract extension a business decision as much as he does a basketball decision:
Kupchak: There’s really nothing that we do that isn’t a combination of a business and basketball decision. You have to ensure the franchise continues to grow and prosper. Then there’s the basketball side of it, which I’ve understood as well as anything. ‘Do you want to win?’ (Dr. Jerry Buss) wasn’t afraid to make a financial decision or business decision, but you can always kind of tell where everybody kind of knew he wanted to win also.Both are factors. I don’t think with the people I work closest with – Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss – that anything has changed at all. We have to run this as a business. Everybody is aware of the legacy of the organization and they’re all as competitive as their dad was.
Q: On if free agents look at the organization and see how loyal they were to Kobe and if that could help them lure players to Los Angeles:
Kupchak: Historically, this organization has been good to its players. I know they’ve been good to me. I know that. But I think our reputation, based on Dr. Buss’ ownership over the years, has been a good one in taking care of players and being a destination place for players. I know our city is attractive to players. They like to play and they like to live. We have great fans here. They really support the franchise. To know that an organization looks after its players, I think that’s a good thing.