Kupchak Talks Walton, Free Agency and Draft
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak is clearly in for a busy summer.
One day after officially signing the Lakers’ next head coach, Luke Walton, Kupchak held a press conference to talk about the team’s future.
From Walton’s plans to the path toward building a roster via free agency and the draft, Kupchak touched on all the major points for the Lakers’ offseason.
Below is a full transcription of Kupchak’s comments from the presser on Friday:
Q: On hiring Luke Walton and deciding not to retain Byron Scott:
Kupchak: It didn’t go wrong with Byron, and there’s no one thing you can point to. The expression: “decision to go in another direction,” is overused. But I decline to go into great detail. Byron did a wonderful job under very adverse circumstances the last two years. I know he wasn’t expecting not to coach our team next year. I know he was hoping that he would coach. But that’s the business, and when I spoke to Byron, we kind of both looked at each other and said, “We’ve both been around long enough to know that this happens.” I thank Byron publicly, and hopefully he’ll be a part of the Lakers for a long, long time in any way possible. Regarding Luke, we did have several interviews set up. Luke was our first interview. It was also, to my understanding, the first interview for Luke. With the openings in the NBA at the time and the openings that we thought might come about, once we finished the interview we decided quickly that he was our first choice. Why wait? Let’s get it done.
Q: On what was biggest impression from speaking with Walton:
Kupchak: There are a lot of positives as to why we chose Luke. Believe it or not, the fact that he doesn’t really have a lot of head coaching experience is a positive. We get to work with somebody who is learning on the fly. We’ve had experiences with coaches like that in the past. In fact, I think Pat Riley was our last 36-year-old coach, and he did pretty good. We’re happy to have Luke for a lot of different reasons. We think he’s a good bet going forward. As you mentioned, he doesn’t have a whole lot of head coaching experience. But he has coaching experience, and we think he’s going to get better year to year.
Q: On hiring Walton so quickly:
Kupchak: We didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting to know Luke. As a player, we drafted Luke, signed him to two or three contracts. We traded him to Cleveland, which, to this day he hasn’t forgiven us for (laughs). When he came back, he worked with us for our D-League team (the Los Angeles D-Fenders) for one year. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting to know him. We know him as a person. Jim (Buss) and I spent six or seven hours basically talking basketball. We had a lot of questions. “What kind of offense? What kind of defense? How do you see our team playing? What do you think of our players? What do we need?” A lot of “What if?” scenarios. And he was well thought out. He was prepared. He had an offensive and defensive playbook. He actually had another pamphlet that he handed out with his picture on the front of it and his name underneath: Luke Walton. I looked at it and said, “Really, Luke?” And he said, “This is something my agent made me do.” (laughs)
Q: On the timeline for putting a coaching staff together:
Kupchak: As you know, there are three coaches on the bench and (more) behind the bench. We’d like to get as many of the coaches for the front of the bench as soon as possible. It is something we’re working on presently.
Q: On Walton’s prospective system:
Kupchak: Luke does intend to play up-tempo, fast-paced basketball, very similar to what Golden State does. But we don’t have the players that Golden State has right now. In this league, it’s a player-oriented league. You’re only going to be as good as your players are. That falls on the basketball department to provide better players going forward. He does like the players that we have, and he thinks they can play a similar style of basketball that’s really prevalent in the NBA right now. It’s exciting, fun to watch and has high skill level.
Q: On how much influence Walton will have on putting a coaching staff together:
Kupchak: He’s had the opportunity since his head coaching debut with the Warriors back months ago — there’s been a lot of talk about the offseason and if he would get a head coaching job. Believe it or not, I think at that point it’s natural to think, “What if? And if I did, who would I like to have sitting next to me?” I don’t think it’s just something he just started talking or thinking about a week ago. He’s developed relationships in his 12-14 year career. Some of the coaches may be on other teams, in which case they would not be available. Some of them may be unemployed, in which case it would be easier to get them. But I think he does have a good idea of what he wants. Whether we can get the people; I don’t know.
Q: On Walton’s influence on building the coaching staff:
Kupchak: In the interview we talked about it. And we talked about what we thought would be a good move for him, in terms of complementing who he is on the bench. So we had good conversations. Our agreement was that we both have input. Clearly, at the end of the day, the organization does have final say. It would never get to that point. Luke is very knowledgable, very eager to talk about possibilities. And I’d be surprised if we couldn’t agree on a coaching staff.
Q: On the longterm future with Walton, considering that many of his predecessors have been let go after only a few years:
Kupchak: It’s different today. For 20 years we had a player on this team, on this court, on this whiteboard and on every box score that I know we all are very familiar with. Of course, I’m talking about Kobe Bryant. Kobe’s retired. It’s clear we’re entering a new arena of basketball for the Lakers going forward. We do want to begin to win as quickly as possible. But first and foremost we want to build a strong foundation. We want to make sure that we do this the right way, whether that’s in the draft or through free agency or through the trade market. We do have more assets today than we did a year ago. So there are a lot more possibilities. Our goal, and Luke is on board, is to do it the right way, play exciting basketball and provide a product to our fans, viewers and supporters that they’re proud of.
Q: On Walton simultaneously starting to work with the Lakers while remaining an assistant for Golden State’s playoff run:
Kupchak: He’s committed to the Warriors. There’s no doubt. When I do talk to him, it’s either early in the morning or late in the evening him. His days are solely committed to practice, meetings, working with players, film work — 100 percent to the Warriors. If, at this time, he and I can speak three or four minutes a day or text once or twice, that’s a good day.
Q: On if Walton expressed concerns about the number of coaches the Lakers have hired then let go recently:
Kupchak: No, never came up.
Q: On whether letting Scott go was influenced by the possibility of another team hiring Walton this year:
Q: On whether Walton’s experience as Golden State’s interim coach for 43 games this season affected his candidacy:
Kupchak: A big adjustment in our league, whether it’s in the front office or on the bench, is when you move over the 18 inches during a timeout (from assistant to head coach). If you’re the assistant during a timeout, you’re lobbying information suggested to the head coach. When there’s 10 seconds left in the timeout everybody’s looking at the head coach, because the head coach has to make a decision. When you’re in that seat as head coach, everyone is looking at you. And that’s a big difference between an assistant and a head coach. The good thing with Luke is that he did have 40 games or so of experience as a head coach. He knows to manage the clock, timeouts, substitutions, draw plays. So although his body of work is limited to about half a season, the fact that he actually has already done it is a big plus going forward in his coaching career. He knows what it takes and he knows the decisions and is familiar with the decisions to be made during the game.
Q: On how Walton can relate to the Lakers’ young core of players:
Kupchak: His generation is closer to the generation of players today. So maybe it’s a good thing he can relate, certainly better than I could. He’ll be traveling and in the locker room, on the court. I think that’s a plus. It’s not that long ago that he was playing. That’s not to say that you have to be a young person who played basketball to be a coach in this league or to be successful in this league. That’s not the case at all. In fact, one of the most successful coaches in this league (Gregg Popovich) is older than I am. But I think that will be a plus in this case, and I’m hopeful that Luke can turn it into a tool that not only helps him coach the players on the team, but also helps us.
Q: On Walton’s X’s and O’s:
Kupchak: I think it helps that Luke has experience as a head coach. So when the clock is running down, the official’s blowing his whistle or a buzzer goes off and there’s five seconds to go — he’s done it before. He will be surrounded by experienced coaches. And I think, now more than ever, the front office will be involved with the development of a young coach. As long as I can remember, we’ve had veteran coaches here. I guess since Del Harris. Del Harris, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson (again), Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Byron Scott. So this is something new for us. I expect to be more involved day-to-day than we’ve ever been in terms of the front office.
Q: On whether the front office will be involved in planning for individual games:
Kupchak: We don’t sit with coaches that often when it comes to game plans. We like to hire people that we think can get the job done. Certainly, I make myself available. We watch a lot of practices. I think, from time to time, they may come to us and say, “Mitch, what do you think of this?” But Luke is going to have free rein to coach the team as he sees fit.
Q: On whether he ever thought about Luke as a future NBA head coach back when he was playing for the Lakers:
Kupchak: I think everybody’s looked at Luke as a coach on the court since he came here from Arizona. He played the right way, seemed to be a good teammate, had a knowledge of the game, certainly grew up around the game. So I don’t think anybody’s surprised that Luke’s (a head coach). In this league, things happen that you can’t plan for sometimes. We already mentioned Pat Riley and how he became head coach of the Lakers completely unexpectedly. Those things happen. Part of that is not in your control. I don’t think anybody ever felt Luke would not be a good coach one day.
Q: On whether Walton’s coaching staff may include former head coaches:
Kupchak: I think that’s certainly a strong possibility, yes.
Q: On how much weight is put on having championship experience and ties to the Lakers when selecting a new coach:
Kupchak: It played a part in this decision. Certainly we knew Luke and didn’t have to get to know him. He did work a little bit on our D-League team for a year. Then for two years he was great at a successful coaching program and had a lot to do with it. He’s got a long way to go. There are gonna be some bumps in the road. He’s gonna continue to learn as he goes along when he’s making decisions. Coaching is an experience that the learning part of it never ends, but we have to provide the talent so he can be successful.
Q: On hiring a young coach:
Kupchak: For the last 20 years, we felt we needed a veteran coach. And this is really the first opportunity to have a rebuild — a fresh, new start or chapter. Accordingly, we decided that there would have been opportunities to hire many veteran coaches. There aren’t many jobs in this league, and I think our job’s a great job. But there are a lot of coaches out there that would like to coach for the Lakers or another NBA team.
Q: On being patient with Walton as a rookie head coach:
Kupchak: Luke’s gonna make mistakes, and it’s our job to build him a staff to limit those mistakes. We also have to get the (player) talent. There’s a timeline between now and July 15 (free agency) that we’re excited about, that’s going to be challenging. We do like our core of young players. There could be a veteran or two or three that was on our team that we could pursue. So we think we have something to work with, versus a year ago when we had less. Certainly, financially, we have so much more this year year than a year ago. But a lot of teams, with the (salary) cap going up, have flexibility. So it’ll be very competitive and challenging, but we do have to provide better players going forward.
Q: On if Walton had reached out to the players yet:
Kupchak: A couple of the players come in every day. Some of them are elsewhere now. Luke has reached out to most of the players in the locker room the other day, and a couple players didn’t recognize Luke’s number. So they ended up reaching out to him because Luke had reached out to them. They’ve spoken and connected.
Q: On whether he feels the players are excited to play for Walton:
Kupchak: I didn’t ask the guys, “What do you think?” It’s not really for them to say. I would think they are. I think our players had a good relationship with Byron last year. As a former player, for me whoever is coaching is coaching. I had a job to do, and I had four or five coaches in my career. For me, it didn’t matter. My job was to come to practice and play games, no matter who the coach was. So I didn’t get into it with the players about: “What do you think about the coach?” That’s our decision, and I would guess that they’re happy with Luke as a coach, but that’s really not a factor.
Q: On getting free agents to come to the Lakers when so many other teams have cap room:
Kupchak: Everybody’s gonna have room. I’ll call it financial flexibility. … We could bring one (max) player on board. This year, we can bring multiple players on board. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have the inside track to one particular free agent. … The players are going to decide where they are going to go; financial considerations and where they can win. We have the natural advantage of living in a great city with great fans that I think will continue to be an advantage. Something we have this year that we didn’t have last year is more talent, and I think free agents may look at us and say, “Well, I like the group they have. Who else can they get this summer with me?” We have the ability to do that. We could quickly go from a team that’s young to a team that’s young and has some veterans and hopefully will win a bunch of games.
Q: On whether the team is comfortable adding two more young players via the draft:
Kupchak: Right now, all we have is the 32nd pick. I’m not really gonna talk about the other pick, because we don’t have it. I mentioned earlier that I’m superstitious — not nearly as superstitious as my predecessor was: Jerry West. There’s a traffic light at the Forum that he would never drive underneath. I’m not that superstitious, but I’m superstitious enough not to want to talk about a pick we don’t have.
Q: On whether he is preparing for the worst-case scenario:
Kupchak: That’s how you have to plan, yes. And I’m fine either way. I’d love to have the (first-round) pick, I’d love to have the 32nd pick, but you have to look at it both ways. And if it doesn’t work out where we get the pick, we get the pick next year, and we still have the ability to improve the team this summer.
Q: On how involved Walton will be with the draft process:
Kupchak: Probably not very involved. I know he’s hoping to be in Oakland until the middle and end of June. If that’s the case, we’ll send him flash drives of workouts. Today we had a workout, and we’re FedExing it up to him today, and he’ll take a look at it. If we can get some of his staff in place, they’ll be up here watching the workouts. But those guys don’t have the time to watch college games like we do, and typically coaching staffs don’t get too involved.
Q: On what the team learned about pitching to free agents over the past few years:
Kupchak: You learn something every year. Last year and the year before, we didn’t have as much to sell as we do this year. This year I think we have more talent on the court to convince free agents that it might be a good place to come play. A year ago, we had enough money for one (max) player. This year we have enough money for multiple players. So that may be attractive to a free agent. He looks at our team and says, “Well, you have some nice young guys” And then he looks at the other part of the team and says, “We could use some veterans.” Then I say, “We can get some veterans. In fact, we can get a max guy or maybe two max guys.” I think that makes a difference. The players do want to go someplace and be competitive. And I don’t think last year and the year before — specifically with Kobe being as close to the end of his career as he was and the injury factor: not knowing how much or if he could play — I think that made a difference.
Q: On the content of the free agent pitches:
Kupchak: That’s for us to decide and use in our plans when July 1 rolls around.
Q: On if he has heard any reaction from players’ agents on the signing of Walton:
Kupchak: I think overall it’s been positive. Based on the reception from the media, and what I’ve read and heard, I think agents overall have been receptive to the hire. We can’t talk to agents about free agents, so it’s not like it’s a conversation that takes place: “Does your free agent like the fact we hired Luke?” Those conversations can’t take place. But we talk to agents and representatives all the time. Just to schedule a workout like today, you have to talk to six to eight representatives just to schedule this. So you do have daily contact with them, and it’s nice to get positive feedback. So we’re hopeful going forward that Luke’s hire not only translates into good coaching, but hopefully something different in terms of helping us recruit free agents going forward. But really, if Luke doesn’t have a lot to sell, it’s hard to sell something. So it’s incumbent on us as an organization to provide assets and pieces that makes it an easier sell. Once again, the fact that we have more players today than we did a year ago (and) we’re hopeful for a good draft pick and the financial flexibility — I think that makes it easier to sell.
Q: On if there is a player on the roster who is off limits for trades:
Kupchak: In terms of getting better, nobody’s off limits. We’ve had one player (Bryant) off limits for 20 years, but even 10-12 years ago there were discussions that I’m sure everybody remembers that involved him. So you have to listen. That’s the job. As an organization looking to improve, you have to listen and take phone calls. If that does happen, that’s a good thing. You have players that other teams want. That’s a very positive situation to be in.
Q: On plans for free agency:
Kupchak: There’s a timeline right now. We just have to follow it. It’s not like you can plot it out today and say, “This is what’s going to take place July 1.” Next week is the Chicago predraft camp. After that, it’s the lottery. That’s a key day, because we’ll know if we’re going to get a pick or not. That’ll help us decide what to do going forward.
Q: On whether the team would go after talented players that don’t necessarily fit the team’s strategy:
Kupchak: In the perfect world, you’d like to get talent to fit what you’re trying to do as a team. But you’re not going to win without talent, period. It’s difficult to make trades if you don’t have assets. So we’re going to try to get players that have talent that fit out needs. Would we get to the point where we maybe compromise something that may not fit perfectly? I don’t know that right now. In this business, it’s not a perfect-world business. You’re always compromising something, no matter what it is. But to try to predict what that is is impossible right now.
Q: On whether there is more pressure this year after three losing seasons:
Kupchak: There’s pressure every year on this organization. We’ve set such a high standard since we moved here in 1960. I’ve been here over 30 years now, and I felt the pressure every year. It’s the good pressure. It’s a pressure to provide a product to what I think are the best fans in the NBA. One year is really no different than the next year to me. Even when you win a championship, it’s almost like the next minute you’re thinking about: “Well, can we repeat?” There’s always a kind of pressure. It’s a good thing, and I feel that, once again, our core group of players are much further along. There’s a lot more excitement this year. And as much as I hate the fact that I won’t see Kobe’s name on the roster next year, I’m happy for him that he got through the season. His last three were injury-ridden. I know he’s ecstatic that he played 20 years and was able to get through the season. So that’s a great thing. But going forward, it provides us some certainty as to how we can plan and build the team.
Q: On if it is too early to put together pitches for free agents:
Kupchak: Yes, it’s too early. We need to see about the pick. We need to get more familiar with the players. And I’m hopeful we can make a pitch that includes a dramatic improvement of the team, and not just a slow build.
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