Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sat down with Lakers.com's Mike Trudell to discuss the organization's approach to this season and beyond, his thoughts on tanking, whether or not the repeater tax impacts the team's thinking moving forward, the 2014 Draft and free agency classes, his thoughts about Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and more:
MT: Particularly in recent years, there's been dialogue whether amongst fans or media members endorsing "tanking," or essentially losing on purpose to try and increase the number of lottery balls for draft prospects. How do the Lakers look upon that idea?
Kupchak: I've been here over 30 years, and it's never something that's been discussed or talked about. When we go into every season – like most organizations – we're excited about the season and think we can win a lot of games. Expectations vary, of course, but we are always going to do the best to win games that year, while also thinking about the following year. There is no way to believe that a team would, on purpose, do a terrible job in the summer and a terrible job in the draft because they want to lose games the next season. Now, I'm sure once the season begins and things go or don't go your way, the speculation as to what may happen if things continue may arise. We've been through years like that, and there's never been a discussion in midseason in this building where ownership would say, "It's best to lose." That's never taken place. Now, I don't even know how you convey that message to the coach if it were the goal. Coaches are defined by their record; it's intuitive that they do not want to lose. It's inconceivable to me that a general manager would try to convey that message to anybody. So it's never happened here and it never will. It's the worst message you can ever give to anybody.
MT: For the teams that are simply young and don’t know if they can win that season, is there a big difference between “tanking” and “rebuilding?”
Kupchak: There are certain teams with young players and assets with a goal to still win games, but they may remove themselves and say, realistically, we're probably going to be a sub-.500 team. That's different from tanking. Tanking is intentionally instructing the coach to lose, and that’s (not acceptable). Rebuilding is another matter.
MT: This season, injuries - Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry remain out – have not allowed you to be able to evaluate what the whole product could look like. As the Western standings sit at the time of this interview, the Lakers (14-22) are 6.0 games behind the 8th-place Mavericks (20-16). Last year was similar, but the roster was mostly healthy when Blake got back at the end of January. At what point do those types of realities impact the decisions you have to make?
Kupchak: If John Stockton were in the D-League, we would have picked up John Stockton. We are trying to win games. With that said, you have to continue to monitor your roster as the season goes on. That's the job as a general manager. You have to be more realistic. Most of the time, we start the season with a certain ratio in mind. It could be 80 percent looking at the current season, and 20 percent at the next season. If you have a chance to win a title in a given season, maybe you sacrifice the next year to a certain extent. Or, maybe that ratio changes with injuries, from 60-40 in December, to 50-50 in January or30-70 in February looking to the future. Now, the coach is 100 percent focused on winning that year, but part of the manager's job is to have the future of the organization in mind.
MT: What’s your ratio right now with this team?
Kupchak: I wouldn't share where I'm at right now, but we monitor it very closely game by game and week to week. The actual end of a season is clear: when you're mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But up until that point you monitor where you are constantly.
MT: How much does the repeater tax penalty impact your thinking when considering the roster for this season and the coming two in particular?
Kupchak: You have to be out of the luxury tax in two out of five years to avoid a repeater penalty. If we stay in the tax this season, it will be three consecutive seasons as taxpayers. Now, how that impacts future decisions depends on the mechanics of each deal. Like anything else, if there is a debt that you have to pay, you'd like to get it behind you as soon as possible. But ownership here has never been afraid to be in the tax. If you're $30 million over the tax as a repeater, that's a tax bill of about $130 million. But if you're in the tax and it's only $1 million over, it's around $2.5 million. So you’re still a repeater in the latter situation, but that’s a big difference.
MT: In short, the repeater tax is a major factor you have to be aware of, but isn’t a black and white line you can’t cross, at least for the Lakers.
Kupchak: Correct. It's a looming black cloud that was created for a reason.
MT: Is the coming NBA Draft as deep and good as has been reported?
Kupchak: Right now, I would say one through 10 is as good as I've seen in a long time.
MT: Like going back to the LeBron-Anthony-Bosh-Wade 2003 Draft?
Kupchak: Yeah, that’s the first draft that comes to mind. Going into that draft, I’m not sure everyone knew that would be such a great draft, but looking back on it, it really was. We'll have to wait and see how this one turns out, but I think it has the potential to be a heck of a draft from one through 10.
MT: Does that affect your preparation for the draft in any way, especially as you’re not sure where your pick will land, and your “ratio” as you eluded to earlier has yet to be set in stone on this season vs. next season?
Kupchak: Our scouts are coming in on Sunday, which they do every year at this time, and again in April and increasingly so after that. By the end of this meeting, we will have general groupings of prospects. We don't concentrate on one group more than another. We'll put guys in the top five, top 10, top 20, in groups of 10 up to 70, and we really don’t spend more time on a particular grouping because of our record. Now maybe somebody is saying, with our record we should be focusing on a certain grouping, but I chair the meeting and I'm not saying 'Listen guys, it looks like we're going to be in the top five, we need to focus there.' As the season progresses, especially in May or June, we'll certainly narrow the focus.
MT: You’ve told me before that you prepare so that you can make every pick, 1 through 60.
Kupchak: That’s correct.
MT: Going back several years, the 2014 summer was seen as this huge year for free agency, but perception may have changed. How do you see it for the Lakers?
Kupchak: Several years ago, we made a conscious decision to line contracts up for this coming year of free agency. If you look at our payroll a year ago, with the exception of Steve Nash, we didn't have anybody under contract (for 2014-15). That didn't have so much to do with who was going to be a free agent in 2014, but more a function of some planning of how our roster (looked). You really have to be conscious of when players get to a certain age. Even though they are great players, they’re used to being paid at a certain level. And a lot of times you end up paying a guy a year to two longer than you should. This happens with championship teams, and we didn't want to have a bunch of guys locked up at the ages of 35, 36, and 37. We’d rather have the flexibility to make some decisions.
Obviously we broke ranks to sign Kobe to an extension, but we still feel like we have significant flexibility this summer and next summer. As far as who's available and who is not available around the league to sign, we still don't know. Some players will opt out, and some players you think will opt out may not. Some free agents may be extended, and some may not. It would be foolish to plan on somebody for sure not opting out or not extending. You really can't plan it with certainty that way. Now, we know who's probably going to be a free agent in the next three seasons, but just not for sure. You cannot earmark a player and say, "That's the guy we're going to get." The league is too competitive and too much can happen to change things. What we do know is that flexibility is good.
MT: People often ask, “Who’s the next star the Lakers are going to get?” Around the league, some team may think they’re in contention for a title, but then the best player gets injured – as so many stars have this season – and the entire outlook changes. How do you narrow things down from the GM seat?
Kupchak: When we’re sitting in here with all the scouts having our meetings, it's so much fun to talk about, 'What if we got this guy or that guy,’ or ‘What if we paired up these two guys?’ It's the same thing the public does. It makes for great speculation, great talk radio, great online (interaction), social media. It's great. But there's the reality part of it that tells us there is a lot that we still don't know. June 30th at 9 p.m. is when we really know, and that’s when the mad rush begins.
MT: With Bryant locked in for the next two years, there is still space for a max player both this coming summer and the next. But in theory, if you like players you think would be up in 2015 and 2016, would you want to avoid giving a maximum contract this coming summer for a player you aren’t sure you want for five years?
Kupchak: That’s right.
MT: How would you summarize what you’re looking at for these next three seasons?
Kupchak: One of the premier free agents this coming summer was going to be Kobe Bryant. He'll no longer be a free agent. We have acquired him. As we approach the summer, we will see who's available and weigh it against what we think is a sound and prudent basketball and business decision. And we’ll decide whether to sign that player versus some other player this summer, or take somebody in a trade or make a trade, and weight it against the option of waiting another year.
MT: Moving to the current roster: with all the injuries, you’ve gotten a chance to evaluate some of the guys that you might not have expected to get real minutes, like Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre or now even Kendall Marshall. Does that help you make decisions moving forward?
Kupchak: Sure it does. It's not an end to all ends, though. As hard as it is to get a rebound in this league, or a put-back or block a shot, you can't do it unless you're playing. I'm telling you: you may think, ‘I could get a rebound. I can’t believe that guy can’t get three rebounds, I can do that.’ Trust me, it's not that easy. But you can’t get any unless you receive minutes. So yes, the injuries do allow us to look at players who don't normally play. They have chances to get stats, but you have to be careful not to be misled by statistics. We look at how guys measure up to top-line NBA players if they’re starting when they normally would not, or to see how guys out of a typical rotation looks against another team’s reserves. It’s all information you use, but you have to factor everything in. Did all the production come in garbage time? Regardless, it’s valuable information.
MT: What did you expect from Xavier Henry when you signed him? He had a non-guaranteed deal and was no lock to even make the team, but he emerged in camp and likewise in the regular season – before this knee strain – when given a chance.
Kupchak: We expected for him to flourish; otherwise we would not have signed him. We didn’t know for sure that he would flourish, and we still don’t because we’re not yet half way through the season. But we signed him because we liked him in college, and we watched him work out after July 1. We looked at his age, his size, his athleticism and thought he had a chance. There was little risk since it was a non-guaranteed offer. We had to do a bit of a sell job with the agent, because I know he had a lot of opportunities, but the fact that there was a real opportunity to make the team was influential for the agents. We got players that we would not normally get.
MT: What did Marshall show you that made you decide he was the point guard out there you thought was best suited to come in and play?
Kupchak: We knew him from college…
MT: Well, as a fellow North Carolina guy we know that you were familiar with his game.
Kupchak … Yes. We had watched him on a limited basis in Phoenix and in the D-League, and I had several conversations with (UNC coach) Roy Williams a week or two before we signed him. Roy thought he was a great teammate, a great table setter, and had nothing negative to say. He spoke about Kendall’s basketball pluses and minuses, but just raved about him as a player and person. He said our coaches would love him.
MT: Can you tell in four starts if a guy is really an NBA player?
Kupchak: No. You can only tell if you want to continue to watch him. If a guy just can't compete in four or five games, you know what his limitations are. But if a young guy puts together three or four pretty good games, you cannot say that he's made it. All you can say is, ‘We have to watch this guy a little bit closer.’
MT: What’s the timetable where you really can tell if a player has it?
Kupchak: You never really know, Mike. I've seen guys have a great year, and then the next year sign a big contract and never be the same again. A lot of it is based on character. If you have a high-character guy and he puts together 30 or 40 games injury free, you have a lot more information than you do if a guy puts together 30 or 40 games and isn’t a high-character guy and has had injury issues in the past. Those are all factors.
MT: Mike D’Antoni has raved about Nick Young’s play this season, and his teammates love him. Has he exceeded your expectations, and how might his play impact the market for him since he has a player option for next season?
Kupchak: He's been great. Where it ends up remains to be seen. But I would credit his agent (Mark Bartelstein). I'm almost positive Nick had more lucrative offers. But what the agent did was look around the league for the spot he thought the kid could have a good year. Playing time, style of play, etc. … sometimes it can be a negative going back to your hometown, but he'd been through that with the Clippers. The agent, whom I spoke to for a long time about this, had to get to that place. Nick wanted to be here, and understandably, players and agents need to look at the dollars. There were more lucrative offers, but our roster provided ample playing time and the style of play fit, and Nick and his family bought into it. Going forward, there are a number of things to determine. Who knows. Money is important to Nick as to all players, but you can watch him play and he just loves to play. Some guys treat it as a job, but Nick loves to play. He has fun and basketball is a big part of who it is. Whatever he decides to do with his opt out … we'd certainly like to see him be a Laker for a long time.
MT: How would you evaluate Pau Gasol's play this season?
Kupchak: I think he's had a great year. I do. He had a procedure done on his knees during the offseason. People don't talk about that, and how invasive it was. It wasn’t just some modules and ultrasound exams. He had some stuff taken out of his hip. He did not play or train the whole summer. He worked hard in camp, but has had to deal with the rumor mill, an infection that lasted a long time. But I think he's playing some of his best basketball right now with a group of players that he did not expect to be playing with. I’m sure he thought Kobe Bryant was going to come back and stay back. I’m sure he thought Steve Nash was going to be here. So he looks around and sees himself with a bunch of young guys he doesn't have experience playing with. Even Steve Blake, he thought he’d play with. Under the circumstances I think Pau’s done great.
MT: Where do you see Gasol’s future with the team?
Kupchak: Pau is going to be a free agent this summer. He’s playing at a high level right now, and there's no reason why he can't play at a high level and finish this season as a Laker. Once July 1st rolls around, we’re going to have an option to extend him, and he’s going to have options to move on to other teams. Years and money will probably be a factor, and I don’t know how that will play out. I do know that he has tremendous loyalty to this city and this franchise, and I think if all things were constant, he’d love to continue to play here, and we'd love to have him here.
MT: Does Gasol’s expiring contract make him more or less of an asset?
Kupchak: Whether his contract is expiring or not, he's a huge asset. You could argue he’d be more valuable if he were under contract for two or three years. A team may say, not about Pau but in general, let me make a deal for this guy because he’s on an expiring contract and then I can look at him before deciding what to do on July 1. But with some players who are established in this league and are of age, you could argue that, what’s to figure out here? Why wouldn’t you want this guy for three years on your team? It depends how you look at it.
MT: Is he viewed as that kind of an asset around the league?
Kupchak: From much who is given, much is expected. Sometimes you just can't measure up to some people's expectations. Pau is a great player and he is a future Hall of Famer.