Kupchak on Young Core and More
Lakers General Manager spoke with Mike Trudell during his Lakers Voices chat in order to answer questions directly from the fans. Kupchak gave his thoughts on the young season, developing the core of budding talents and more.
Below is a full transcription.
Q: On Kobe Bryant’s last year:
Kupchak: He’s by far our most experienced veteran. Beyond Kobe, our team’s very, very young. It’s a developing group. We would have liked to have won more games by now, not that we ever thought we would be a team that would contend. But when you win some games, there’s just more positive environment and atmosphere. It just makes it a little more tolerable for young players to develop. You don’t want to get into a position where you’re losing every game. It’s tough. At that point, yeah, you want to develop, but you want to win games. Atmosphere is important, but our staff continues to have great practice. I was just at practice. It was high-spirited with a lot of work and energy. But we do want to develop the young players; see if we can get a core that we can depend on going past this season. We don’t know what kind of pick we’re going to get this year. We know we have our second-round pick. We have a protected (first-round) pick one through three, but we do have a second-round pick in all likelihood. We have a lot of flexibility in the summer with our (salary) cap. I’m very encouraged with our picks: D’Angelo (Russell), Jordan (Clarkson) and Julius (Randle). Jordan played less than half a year last year. Julius played one game. D’Angelo, this is his true rookie season. So those three we’re watching very closely, and then of course Anthony Brown, who has not gotten a chance, and Larry Nance, who has started. That’s kind of where we are as a team. Our veterans have done a great job of keeping the group together: Roy (Hibbert), Lou (Williams), Metta (World Peace), Brandon (Bass) and, of course, Kobe.
Q: Three words to describe Bryant:
Kupchak: Durable, champion, competitor.
Q: On balancing Bryant’s final year and the Lakers’ young core:
Kupchak: Knowing you’re not going to get to the playoffs and that Kobe’s not going to be here a year from now, it makes you want to focus as a manager on the young players. The reality is: Although Kobe won’t be with us next year, he will be with us for the rest of the year. This is his 20th season and he’s just had a ridiculous career. The fans on the road — our fans on the road — want to see him play. So we’re trying to focus on the young group, but Kobe deserves a large degree of respect for what he’s accomplished — not only because it’s something that he wants to do, but it’s something the fans want to see. You wold think that it’s tough to manage that — and I thought at first maybe it would be — but if you watch the last two or three games closely, you see that Kobe is really trying to get the young players to grow; get them more involved and make plays that will make them better. I know he does that in the locker room and on the practice field, but it’s important to do it during the game, too.
Q: On Bryant deciding to take himself out of the game and defer to the younger players against Minnesota on Dec. 9:
Kupchak: Kobe has a great relationship with Byron (Scott). I know they talk all the time on the road. There may have been a conversation or two about: “Let’s watch your minutes. Where does this end up? We want to get you to the last week of the season. We want you to play in every game in every season if that’s what you want to do.” We know it’s what the fans want to see. To play him 35-40 minutes may not make sense keeping in mind what the ultimate goal is. I think Byron may have had that conversation with Kobe about getting the fans and Kobe at a certain level where he can play at a high level for the fans. You can’t do that in 5-15 minutes during a game. You’ve got to do that between 20-30 minutes. Those kinds of discussions probably took place. I think the Minnesota game where Kobe said that to Byron just came about naturally.
Q: On if thee development of the young core is the Lakers’ most important issue:
Kupchak: There’s no doubt we’re a team in transition. We will continue to pursue free agents that are veterans. And we have several veterans on our team right now that will be free agents that we have to evaluate and make a decision on this summer. In addition to that, we obviously have a core of young players that we are trying to develop and build around. So it’s important to us as a team not only to develop and monitor the young players, but guys like Roy Hibbert, Marcelo (Huertas) and Brandon Bass. … It’s important for us to get familiar and comfortable with these guys to see how they will fit in with our young core, as well.
Q: On what a college player needs to show to get noticed by the Lakers:
Kupchak: It’s a process that we go through every year with the draft and evaluating players. Over the years, the best players have left college after one year. When you’re looking at a one-year player, it’s difficult because the body of work is very, very small. We’re not allowed to go into high schools. … We can’t scout players in high school like we once did. What we look for knowing if you have a high pick you’re going to get a 19-year-old player — you clearly look for NBA size, skills, the character of the player. You want to draft somebody that has great skills, size, has a position and great character. Sometimes you do have to give a little bit on one of those, and maybe the other one’s a little bit higher. But as a 19-year-old player there’s a lot of guesswork involved. We have to look at them and project out three to four years. But you do have to have certain things. You have to be competitive with skills and size. Most times you do have to have an NBA position. Sometimes a player’s so good it doesn’t really matter what position they play. They could be undersized. Charles Barkley and Wes Unseld are great examples. … They were just great players. Those are the exceptions, but by and large, we look for guys that can play in our league at certain positions.
Q: On his view of Russell at this point:
Kupchak: It’s always been the long view. There’s never a doubt when we scouted last year him and when we drafted him and worked him out that he was going to be a very, very, very good player in this league. That’s our feeling all along. He did not have a very good Summer League, and I think that was a wake-up call for him. I think a lot of that has to do with expectations. Also, once he finished his (only) year in college, he did not play basketball for three months. At that point, you’re under the management of an agent, who really just puts you through skill work; doesn’t want you to get hurt; doesn’t want you to play; and wants you to get drafted at a certain level. So he took three months off, and we had a very difficult week of pre-Summer League camp. He wasn’t in the best of shape this summer. When he came back to (training) camp, I thought he was a different player. Confidence for a young player in this league is important, and I think since camp he’s gained more and more confidence. I think if you watched the last three or four games, he looks to be a different player, certainly than he was in Summer League. But even very different than he was in training camp.
Q: On which way Russell plays best:
Kupchak: He’s got to figure out the pace, but he’s also got to play with equal or exceeding energy and pace, himself. He’s not going to just figure out the pace of the game. As a ball-handling guard, you can dictate the pace of the game, and that’s something we think he can do. If he were sitting here right now and you said to him, “I think you’re going to be a really good point guard in this league,” he would say, “Well, I’m not sure I am a point guard.” I think what he would say is that he’s a basketball player. And I think that’s an accurate description of what he is. I think there will be games where he does score a lot of points … but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s broken through and that’s what he’s going to be. His gift is being able to deliver the ball and see the floor. I think he will also score. I think he will rebound at a high level for a guard. I think there will be a lot of games in his career where he’s gonna be a triple-double threat. Defensively is another challenge for him, because a lot of times, even though he is a basketball player, he’ll end up guarding a ball-handling guard or point guard. In our league, those guys are savvy with great quickness. You can’t just go out there and play at a low level. You have to bring energy and know if you’re going to go over a pick or under it and how to get help knowing that you’re probably not going to stop a guy, but you’ve got to make it really tough on him. That’s an area he has to work on as well.
Q: On Jordan Clarkson’s growth:
Kupchak: I think it was easier for him last year to put up bigger numbers when Kobe went down and we gave the ball to Jordan in the second half of the year. The games were up and down with the ball in his hands. We brought two other ball-handling guards on board this year in D’Angelo and Lou. So I think the three of them are figuring out how to play with each other. During the offseason, Jordan worked as hard, if not harder, than anybody. I think he’s improved his shooting. … Sometimes that’s tough when you’re not shooting the ball as much, too. Sometimes he’s coming off screens and catching and shooting. Sometimes he’s got the ball in his ands and is creating and trying to get to the rim. I think the second half of last year, he had the ball in his hands all the time. That lends to reason that you’re going to have great feel if you have the ball in your hands all the time. He did have to make an adjustment and learn to be as effective off the ball. Defensively, he also has to continue to work. That’s a challenge because he guards ball-handling guards and big guards, too. He’s also worked on his body. He’s gotten a lot stronger.
Q: On how he evaluates Randle at this point:
Kupchak: He only played 14 minutes (last year). For a young player at 19 years old, that’s devastating. He, by nature, is very, very competitive. He wants it all now, which is great. The reality is that it’s not going to all come together (now). Even if he played last year, he would have a different feel this year. But it’s still going to come together. We’ve got to figure out where he’s going to be most effectively offensively. Defensively, he’s got to continue to work on guarding the guy in front of him and, of course, team defense. He’s already a really good rebounder. He’s approaching nine rebounds a game. With his competitiveness and effort, I think he’s always going to put up rebounding numbers. But the rest of the game will take some time. Even though this is his sophomore season, last year, with the exception of training camp, he did not play. On top of that, you’ve got to come back and regain confidence that you’re healthy. That was a nasty, nasty injury last year. It’s really only been a year and a couple of months since the injury. If you think about it in a 14-month period where he was and where he is today, it’s impressive.
Q: On how he gauges success in a season with so many losses:
Kupchak: I try to attend as many practices as I can. Of course watching the games … we look for the players that are going to work hard. If their practices are still spirited; if they’re coming early and staying late and working with our coaches If they improve the team and individually. It’s important when you’re going through tough times and have a long way to go, you wan the coaches and staff to create an environment where players still want to come to, and they want to work hard and don’t want to leave early, feeling like: “I’ve got to get out of here.” It’s not acceptable to lose, but that’s where we are right now. We’re a young, developing team. We’re gonna lose some games. You don’t want that to affect the overall picture, which is working to continue to improve the team. And then individually getting players to develop.
Q: On how he has evaluated Scott’s first two seasons:
Kupchak: I think we have to wait till the season’s over to look back on how he did this year. I thought he was excellent last year in very adverse circumstances. I go to practice all the time, and our practice are always spirited. Our coaches are always prepared. They’re working with the players before and after. Ultimately our goal is to win, so at some point myself and ownership and myself will have to look at it and say, “OK, we didn’t win. How much of that is my fault? How much of that is players getting injured?” Then of course, how much of that, if any, is Byron’s fault? Ultimately that will happen at a later date. But to date, players continue to play hard, and that’s the most important thing.
Q: On balancing development between chasing wins:
Kupchak: I don’t tell Byron what to do. I don’t tell him who to play. We do talk often: at practice, in my office, in his office. We talk by phone; updates, what I see, what he sees, what he’s thinking; who we’re sending down to the D-League; when they are coming up; how they played. There’s a lot of dialogue that goes on between Byron and myself. We try to keep each other in the loop. We’re working to improve wins. But you do want to develop young players. By and large, our future is the young players we have. But I don’t tell Byron what to do. He plays the players he feels gives him the best chance to win. Obviously we’re playing our rookies right now, and he thinks they’ll give us the best chance to win. Julius and D’Angelo and Larry Nance have been starting. The three of those have been getting a lot of minutes, and they’re basically rookies.
Q: On the recent changes to the starting lineup:
Kupchak: I was aware that Byron was going to do that before he did it. It’s much too soon to even evaluate how effective it was. That’s the kind of thing that a year from now or six months from now, you look back and see how players responded. The bottom line is that in this league it’s difficult for rookies and young players to get minutes, whether it’s 10 or 15. We have guys on our team that can’t get on the court, so you have to be careful about gifting minutes to players. We know we have to develop our players, but they also know their performance will dictate how many minutes they get. That’s not only their performance individually, but their performance as a team, too. To sit here today and look back on the past week or two, I think that’s way premature. Personally, I think it’s going to end up being a good thing for everybody. But players have to continue to play hard and to compete and work on their game. If you’re getting 15-30 minutes a game, you better be pretty happy you’re getting those minutes, and you better not take them for granted. Because they’re difficult to come by, and I can make a list of 60-70 guys in the NBA right now that can’t get into an NBA game. They would die for 20 or 15 minutes a game. It’s not something to gift out, and it’s not to say we’re sending a message. I thikn what we were doing after 17 games as a team was not working. So why not change it up a little bit. And when he looked at the options to change it up, he felt that was the best way to, and I’m OK with it.
Q: On how the team’s offensive and defensive systems can modernize:
Kupchak: The NBA game today is different than it was 20, 30 years ago. We’re shooting 3’s at a very, very high rate. The NBA over the years has reduced the contact and the hand-checking. They put the semicircles in for drawn charges. Clearly the issue was to promote a game that really highlighted the players’ natural abilities; what great athletes they are and the high skill level that they have. Whether that changes down the road, I don’t know. You still have the best teams in this league with big men, low-block players. Golden State still has two 7-footers. They don’t always play them. In fact, last year in the NBA Finals there were a couple of times that they had neither (Andrew) Bogut nor (Festus) Ezeli in the game. And they went with Draymond Green, who is really 6’6”. So a lot of it’s going to be dictated by the personnel that you have on that team and who you’re playing and how the coach decides to play his players against those players. But the game today is different. To think there might be 40, 50 or 60 3’s in a game; when I came up, the 3-pointer was not in the game. I remember when one or two taken in the game was a big number. To have 60 in a game today, I think that’s exciting as heck. I really do. The game’s changed, and our players and coaches will just have to make the adjustments and see how they get better and who we’re playing against, and I think that will dictate who plays and how they play.
Q: On whether Russell’s selection had anything to do with the direction where the game is going:
Kupchak: We felt he was the second-best player. (Karl-Anthony) Towns, I thought was a heck of a prospect, and we didn’t get a chance to work him out. But we did get a chance to work out D’Angelo twice and other players twice. We just felt he was the guy we wanted; that he had a high ceiling and a lot of upside for a 19-year-old player. Played high school and one year of college, so limited experience. That may be the risk you’re taking when you take a 19-year-old. But we just felt he was the best player for us.
Q: On if there are plans to trade anybody this year:
Kupchak: We haven’t earmarked a player and said, “We have to trade this player.” The phone calls begin about now. December 15 in our business is a meaningful day. It’s a day when contracts that were signed this summer’s players can be traded. There’s a little bit more activity. Part of our job is to make calls and just get a feel or pulse of the league. Whether or not it leads to a trade, who knows? But we don’t have plans to trade a player. Trade deadline’s not for another couple of months. So we’ll sit and monitor our team, make calls, take calls, see where we are a month from now. If something comes up that we think would help us down the road, we’ll look at it.
Q: On the team’s analytics department:
Kupchak: I think it’s really a question for our coaches, because they’re the ones that meet with Clay Moser, who works with in our analytics department. He’s a link between our analysts and our coaching staff. Clay has a lot of experience as a coach. The reports that are gathered every evening that are generated and reviewed in the morning by our analytics department is passed on to our coaches by Clay Moser. And it’s varying amounts of information. It could be shot charts, metrics, which combinations of players work better. There are defensive and offensive metrics. There’s a lot of information that’s overwhelming. You have to be careful as a department that the person who gives that information to coaches that is consistent, succinct and not overwhelming to a coach. A coach has travel, practice, film work, meets with players and coaches —there’s a lot that goes into a coach’s day, and you don’t want him to be bogged down or overwhelmed with maybe 50-80 pages of numbers. That’s not productive. So Clay’s position is very, very important. He goes through all of that information and gets it quick and clean to our coaches. And they decide how they’re going to use it. And every game is different. Not only does it help us determine which of our players and combinations are playing well, but it also helps us look at the team we’re playing against. From my point of view, it may also help me with college, professionals, the draft, evaluating players. But primarily their job is to report to the coaches, in particular during the season. During the offseason we work on a lot of things together, but during the season the games come so quickly and the information is so large that just to analyze it and get it to the coaches in a fashion that’s usable is really all they should be concentrating on.
Q: On how early he begins thinking about the draft considering the team’s record:
Kupchak: It’s a factor. Obviously we hoped we would’ve had a better record with more wins. Having said that, even if you get the 12th, 13th or 14th slot, you could theoretically win the lottery. … Even though, statistically you probably won’t get that pick, you have to prepare. You can’t start preparing in June. Yes, there’s a bigger percentage that we would end up looking at one of those picks. We don’t know. We still have 50-something games to go. But I try to see all the players that are generally considered the top prospects in the draft. Our scouts see 10 games a day back on the East Coast and here. So we have a lot of games covered. Myself personally, I do try to get it out and watch the top prospects as much as I can, as early as I can. Sometimes a top prospect will get injured and still come out. When that happens you could be behind the eight ball a little bit.
Q: On the most influential person to him in basketball:
Kupchak: My high school coach was influential, a guy named Stan Kellner in New York. He was a very successful high school and college coach. Clearly my college coach, Dean Smith. And here in Los Angeles, Jerry West. I played for him for five years and worked with him for 14 years. We still stay in touch, have dinners, try to talk as much as we can about basketball. I know he’s with Golden State now, so we have to guard our conversations a little bit. But if you know Jerry, you would think that he’s guarding but really isn’t. He’s so forthright and open, and I try to be the same way with him, but we have to protect our franchises. If there was a basketball mentor that’s probably meant the most to me — particularly in my professional career — it would probably be Jerry West.
Q: On longtime assistant coach and current Director of Scouting Bill Bertka:
Kupchak: Bill’s the best. Anybody that follows the Lakers knows that he’s been with us ever since the late ‘60s. He went away for a couple of years to work with New Orleans and Utah, but came back and has been here ever since as an assistant coach, and he worked very closely with me, and continues to. When we get bogged down in metrics and analytics or wins and losses or opinions in the papers, Bill would come into my office and find something that’s filed 20 or 30 years ago, or he’ll write down eight bullet points and hand it to me and say, “Mitch, this is my opinion based on 50 years of basketball.” And that’s meaningful. That’s important to me.