He’s seen them all come and go. He played with some of them, on championship teams in Washington (1978) and Los Angeles (1985). And for 23 years, Mitch Kupchak has been tasked with keeping the Lakers relevant, filled with stars and always on the brink of another title as the team’s general manager.
Kupchak got Pau Gasol to L.A. in 2009, putting another superstar with Kobe Bryant in a move that led to two more NBA titles. But Bryant finally got old, and Gasol moved on, and the Lakers made the call to start over. So Kupchak and vice president Jim Buss have gone to the Draft, picking Julius Randle seventh in 2014 (and getting the rights to second-rounder Jordan Clarkson that year, too), picking D’Angelo Russell No. 2 overall and Larry Nance 27th overall in 2015 and taking Brandon Ingram second overall in 2016, and hiring Luke Walton as coach last summer.
The record hasn’t been pretty the last couple of years, but it was the figurative price the team paid for the literal price of Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million goodbye present. With Bryant finally retired, the team was turned over to the kids, and a first-year coach, with predictable results. The Lakers were .500 at the end of November, but have cratered since, leaving the front office’s future in question until team president Jeanie Buss decides what to do. But the 62-year-old Kupchak is a lifer, and he remains a respected executive around the league.
The Lakers will be poised to be active in free agency again this summer, with a chance to accelerate the rebuild. Until then, the progress of one of the league’s top two franchises back to relevance will come in small moves, requiring a man of patience to handle the ups and downs.
Me: What is your sense of progress this season? You’ve been around a long time and you know a hot start doesn’t always lead to a successful finish.
Mitch Kupchak: Well, I think the start of the season fueled our hopes for something that I don’t think was expected. We were 10-10, and I think we went on a long road trip and we had three or four injuries. I think that’s part of the league, road trips and injuries. We didn’t adjust that well to it. And we went through a period where it was kind of tough to win a game. And we lost our mojo, so to speak. And it’s been difficult to get it back. That’s kind of where we are today, based on wins and losses. Putting that aside, we’re incredibly excited about our future. I think we’ve got six or seven young players that I think all have a great future in front of them. And we have a mix of older veterans that I think are going to help our young guys mature and make progress. We’re very excited about the future, and the development of the young players on this team.
Me: What are you seeing from Ingram now that maybe wasn’t there at the beginning of the year?
MK: He’s making steady improvements. Despite the length of the season, and the fact that a lot of rookies struggle at 45 or 50 games, he doesn’t seem to have run out of gas. He’s been really consistent and he’s getting confidence day by day. He’s still only 19, so he’s got a long way to go. But he seems eager to work. Nothing seems to rattle him. He’s playing like he fits in.
“I think our fans can see what’s going on. Clearly, we’d like to have a couple more Ws. But I think they get it. They see the six or seven young guys. They see the future. They see the plan unfolding in front of their eyes.”
Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak
Me: Do you think he can be an on-the-ball, ball distributing, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo-type forward? Is that in his tool bag? I know he’s capable of shooting but is that ball handling piece there, too?
MK: There’s no doubt that he could bring the ball up the floor. In fact, that’s what we’re asking him to do now, and he’s been doing it. I think it’s going to be a challenge to figure out where he’s most productive, whether it’s bringing the ball up the floor and facilitating, or is it catching the ball on the wing and making a play? We don’t know yet. But for the last month or so, he’s demonstrated he can bring the ball up the floor. He doesn’t lose it. I don’t think that part’s the question. I think it’s a matter of us figuring out where he can be most productive.
Me: Same question for D’Angelo and his progression. What do you see?
MK: Almost the same answer. I think the challenge people are going to have with him is trying to pigeonhole him. Is he a ballhandling point guard or is he a shooting guard or is he a combo guard? I’m not sure any of those things by themselves define who he is. I think he’s just a basketball player. I don’t know if he’s going to be a prototype point guard. I don’t know if Steph Curry is. I’m not trying to compare the two; I’m just trying to make an example of the game today is a little different than the game 20 years ago. A lot of the pieces are interchangeable. But D’Angelo’s gifts are his ability to see the floor. He’s a great 3-point shooter. He’s got size, he’s got length. But like the rest of our guys, with the exception of Larry Nance, he’s young.
Me: You think he shoots it well enough, especially in today’s game? Everybody has to be able to shoot.
MK: Unfortunately, you can’t always find that. Shooters are everywhere. You can always find a shooter. But finding a shooter who can do other things. Just being able to shoot the ball doesn’t always get you on the court for extended minutes. You’ve got to be able to guard, you’ve got to be able to do the little things. You can’t just be a stand in the corner shooter. There’s always a place for a guy like that, but not for extended minutes.
Me: Is there the skeleton of a unit that can defend among your young guys — Clarkson, Ingram, Nance in particular — or are those pieces still not yet on the roster?
MK: If you look at the stats, I think we’re close to the bottom of the barrel. You would say that it’s not possible. But if you can score in this league, you can defend. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it and making the commitment. So we haven’t done that yet. You can point to injuries, you can point to youth. But we haven’t been able to do it yet. There’s no reason why we can’t.
Me: How do you keep Luke’s spirit up?
MK: I think by nature, he’s energetic and upbeat. Obviously as the general manager you stay in touch with your coach, and you try to make sure you encourage him and just be as positive as you can. Coaches, their job is different from my job. My job is to see the big picture; his job is day to day. And when you’re day to day, you take each loss really, really hard. It’s not that general managers don’t. But for a coach, it’s really up and down. But the thing about it is with the coaches is, because there’s a game around the corner, they recover so quickly. So I just stay focused on keeping him positive, which I don’t have to do, because that’s his nature. Just remember the big picture. Of course I worry about it, because he doesn’t show it. Maybe when he goes home, he puts his head in his hands for a couple of minutes. But when he’s around the players, it’s nothing but energy and positive vibes.
Me: How are you doing?
MK: I’m great. I think what we’ve got here is exciting. I think our fans can see what’s going on. Clearly, we’d like to have a couple more Ws. But I think they get it. They see the six or seven young guys. They see the future. They see the plan unfolding in front of their eyes. We’ve got cap flexibility this summer and going forward. So I like where we are. I’d like to win a couple more games, but I think our future’s very bright.
Me: I’m sure that while you may want a couple more wins, you’ll accept whatever outcome occurs.
MK: I know what you’re saying. It is a good Draft.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
We hit the lottery by not signing you https://t.co/eSiBaNT061
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) January 28, 2017
Portland guard C.J. McCollum (@CJMcCollum), Saturday, 1:45 a.m., responding in, well, blazing fashion — seven minutes — after Memphis’ Chandler Parsons threw some shade Portland’s way with a Tweet wishing Portland good luck in the Lottery in May. Parsons was miffed about the Blazers’ official Twitter account snarking it up after he air balled a shot earlier in the game. (The team said in a subsequent release that its Twitter folk may have been a little too jocular.) Parsons signed a four-year, $95 million max deal with Memphis last summer, but has only played in 21 games this season as he recovers from yet another knee injury.
THEY SAID IT
“It’s like when you don’t have bodies, it’s tough. The (bleeping) grind of the regular season. We’re a top-heavy team. We have a top-heavy team. We top-heavy as (bleep). It’s me, (Kyrie Irving), (Kevin Love). It’s top heavy…we need a (bleeping) playmaker. I’m not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that…I don’t got no time to waste. I’ll be 33 in the winter, and I ain’t got no time to waste.”
— LeBron James, making it clear that the Cavaliers roster construction is not, in his humble view, complete.
“It’s become my greatest accomplishment of my life and everybody else’s biggest nightmare.”
— Hall of Famer Bill Walton, to The Oregonian, on overcoming his lifelong stutter at age 28, which led to his broadcasting career for NBC and ESPN/ABC.
“There were 50 guys on there who had no business getting votes. Although a lot of people wrote in their buddies in the presidential vote as well. So maybe that’s just their own way of making a statement. I think if you’re going to give the players a vote, I think they should take it seriously.”
— Steve Kerr, on what he called the “mockery” of players casting All-Star ballots for the likes of Mario Hezonja, Mo Williams, Jordan McRae and Daniel Ochefu, while many players left Kevin Durant and/or LeBron James off their ballots altogether.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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