Mitch Kupchak expresses optimism Dwight Howard will return and work well with Mike D’Antoni

Below is a Q&A with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who talked with this newspaper about Dwight Howard, his free agency and his relationship with coach Mike D’Antoni

Is it true, as ESPN Los Angeles reported, that Dwight Howard in his separate interview after his formal exit interview that he lamented frustrations about Mike D’Antoni, specifically about how he felt marginalized on the team?

“Criticism of a coach did not come up. Our coach did not come up. In terms of the way the season went and our talent, group and players and how they think in general, I would venture to say most of our players felt this was a frustrating season and that they didn’t get to show their talents as much as they would have liked to.

Some of that had to do with the coaching change because of one coach to another, no training camp and that all whole thing. Some of it had to do with injuries and some of it had to do with Mike making adjustments as the season went on so in general I would answer that question as to say I’m talking about Pau, Steve Nash and everybody felt the season didn’t go the way they wanted to. I think in general they all felt that there are ways to utilize their talent better going forward. That would include Dwight in that group.

What do you make of that feedback you were given?

There’s a lot to take from the season. Put aside the injury thing. We can’t really completely get off of. That had so much to do with the season. But I would say a season that ended with Kobe’s injury, we didn’t really have a chance to go much further at that point anyway.

But from the moment that Mike got here and assessing the talent on the team, he was searching and making changes and being flexible and learning the talent. I would say the same goes with the players on the team. They were getting a feel for what Mike wanted to see. It was a season of adjustments and once again it’s hard to go through a season with no training camp and the injuries we had. I don’t want to say it was a learning experience. That doesn’t fly. It really doesn’t. The bottom line is we got knocked out in the first round. All that stuff aside, that’s the bottom line.

How would you characterize Dwight’s relationship with Mike?

“I don’t want to start nitpicking. There are 13 guys on a team. The eight guys who don’t start don’t like the coach and the five who do start, there are usually two or three that aren’t happy either for one reason or another. I would venture to say at one point during the season for every player, they have a problem with the coach.

But being around as long I’ve been around, it doesn’t bother me when I hear at some point a player didn’t see eye to eye with a coach. Players don’t have to like coaches. They just have to play hard. In L.A., our coaches get evaluated on wins and losses and not whether our players like them or don’t like them. It doesn’t matter.”

How confident are you that Dwight and Mike will work well together assuming Dwight returns?

“I have absolute and complete confidence. I don’t want to regurgitate everything that was said months ago. I understand the way it has to be. But to me, Dwight’s getting criticized unfairly in something that he’s earned [regarding free agency]. He may have made his mind up as far as I know. Once again he can’t sign until [July 10th]. He’s earned the right. I’ve been through it. If that’s something he feels he wants to do, I’m fine.”

What do you make on Howard’s role in D’Antoni’s offense?

“It was a process that Mike had to go through with as a new coach and a new team. I thought he made adjustments and was flexible and we played to win. Our record supported the way he coached excluding the playoff series. Our players supported Mike in the way he coached and made adjustments and vice versa.”

Dwight obviously has a lot of time to make his decision. But since his exit interview, have you received any additional clarity from him or his representatives on his thought process?

“No. No. I am disturbed, and I guess this is how it all got started, that there’s much ado about the fact he’s going to be a free agent. It seems to me it’s gaining some momentum that he’s going to be a free agent and he’s earned the right to be a free agent many moons ago. 30 years ago, I went through the same thing.”

“In fact, through midseason of my last year in Washington, the GM in Washington called me up and said, excuse me, my agent called me up and said, ‘The Bullets have worked a deal where you get traded, but the team we want to trade you to won’t take you unless you agree to an extension.’ I said, ‘Listen, this is my fifth year in the league. I want to be a free agent. I want to find out how all this works.’ I said no.”

“So a player a has a right to be a free agent. It bothers me that there seems to be some media attention and criticism early in the process about Dwight and the coach and Dwight and free agency. Don’t get me wrong. The sooner he makes his mind up, the better for everybody. That’s my take on it. But he can’t sign until July 10 anyway. I told him when he first got here, ‘I’m not going to bug you. I believe this is the place for you. When you make your mind up, let me know.’”

You said you were optimistic in your exit interview that Howard will come back. Do you still feel that way?

I’m optimistic.

What makes you feel that way?

“Just what we have to offer. We can’t get outbid. The city is a rabid Laker city. It extends from San Diego to Santa Barbara. When you’ve traveled with us, when you go to arenas on the road, there are 3 or 4,000 Lakers fans in every arena. Our following is huge. The loyalty of the fans is huge. Players love the lifestyle, like a lot of people do to live in Southern California.”

To what degree, does the front office set up contingency plans in case he doesn’t return?

“That’s what we do. We plan years in advance. That’s what we have to do. Coaches go day to day. Management has to look a year, two or three down the road.”

You repeatedly supported Dwight throughout the season and pointed out the reality on how his injuries significantly limited him. What do you sense your support did for Dwight?

“I haven’t talked to him about it. I don’t have any direct input or feedback. First of all, I was shocked in the first day of training camp that he was going through drills. I didn’t think until January or February, he would be back. Then in January or Feberuary, he’s getting criticized for conditioning, his second jump and that didn’t play like he did a year ago. I’m saying to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. It’s been seven months since major back surgery. He’s way ahead of where I thought he’d be and he’s being criticized. That’s not fair.’”

“The other side of the coin, when you’re on the court, you’re ready to play and the coach looks down the bench. If you’re dressed, you’re ready to play. But to me, that was an injustice. I just felt at that time I should speak my mind.”

With Dwight likely to be healthier next season, how do you envision he will do next year?

“I think he’s going to have a great year next year.”

What qualities does Dwight have that makes you confident that, assuming he comes back to the Lakers, will end his career with a retired Lakers jersey and a statue?

“You’ve been around long enough and watched him play. Look at his numbers and his age. Everything will continue. Knock on wood, he stays healthy. He’ll be in the hall of Fame. There’s no doubt. If he picks up where he let off, he’s going to average 20 points and 14 rebounds and 2 and 3 blocks and he’ll be in the Hall of Fame. He’ll be here for 16 years in this league and there’s no doubt.”

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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  • LakerTom

    Great exclusive interview with Mitch, Mark. Everybody who doubts that the Lakers front office is not doing their job should listen to how Mitch handles himself. Dr. Buss may not be with us any longer but I’m amazed at the lack of respect being given to Mitch Kupchak, who always has been one of the best general managers in pro basketball.

  • Mark Medina

    Laker Tom – Thanks so much for the feedback. Hope you’ve been well. An interesting interview indeed. At the same time, Mitch clearly recognizes there was a disconnect between D’Antoni and most of his players. That’s something that will have to change next season

    • LakerTom

      You’re welcome, Mark. I think with a full camp and his own staff of assistants, Mike will be able to develop a better rapport with the players. I also think having gone through last year, the players themselves will do a better job of communicating and playing as a team, whether Dwight is there or not.

      • Mark Medina

        It remains to be seen though. I can tell you that none of the players are entirely thrilled with D’Antoni and it goes beyond just the frustrating part about losing. They credit him for adjusting, but they feel like it came way too late.

        • LakerTom

          Do you think D’Antoni is going to be a reason why Dwight may leave?

          • Magicman32

            I do

        • LakerTom

          My other question, Mark, is which players did you talk to who gave you that impression. Was it Dwight or was it Antawn or Pau or Jodie, who were in and out while Mike was experimenting with lineups?

          • Mark Medina

            Laker Tom – Sorry for the delay. Stepped away from the computer during Memorial Day weekend. I don’t think D’Antoni would be the sole reason if Dwight were to leave. If he does, it would mainly involve his belief that the Lakers aren’t best suited to win a title both in the near future and long term. Of course, part of that falls under D’Antoni. But I wouldn’t list that as the only reason. There were three camps of players regarding D’Antoni. The ones who disliked him because of how he coached and his philosophy (Howard, Gasol, Jamison). The ones who like D’Antoni (Blake, Meeks). The ones who were often in between. Liked him as a person, but conceded sometimes adjustments needed to be made (Kobe, Nash, World Peace).

            Hope those answer your questions.

          • LakerTom

            Thanks, Mark. Your answer was exactly what I was looking for. Great inside information. I’ve reposted this on Lakerholics.Net so stop by and see what the reaction is We are averaging over 250 comments per day now and many of your old LA Times gang are there.

  • Magicman32

    As a Laker fan of many many moons, I feel very disappointed in the manner that Laker management handled the latest coaching hire, Mike D’Antoni. The midnight call to Phil Jackson, the decision to “get back to a Showtime type of Basketball”. Loved Mitch as a player, especially the 1985 finals, man what a warrior he was. Most fans, fans who know basketball and the Lakers, feel we have made a major mistake in the direction we did with coach D, especially over Phil Jackson.