A serious look wore on Mitch Kupchak’s face, and the reasons went beyond his remorse that the former North Carolina Tarheel drafted Duke forward Ryan Kelly with the 48th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft.
Kupchak’s stoic demeanor on Thursday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo appeared to reflect everything surrounding the uncertainty on Dwight Howard’s pending free agency. At 9:01 p.m. on Sunday, Howard will become an unrestricted free agent and begin a series of meetings with teams ranging from the Lakers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, possibly more.
How does Kupchak like the Lakers’ chances in convincing him to stay?
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “But I understand that there’s a possibility he won’t [return].”
Kupchak received that sense after continuously talking with Howard’s representatives in recent weeks. He’ll still call them at 9:01 p.m, though Kupchak predicts, “I don’t think anything dramatic is going to take place.” That’s because Howard has made clear he plans on visiting other teams, which will include the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors. Possibly more.
Kupchak sensed that process wouldn’t take long, possibly as early as July 10 when Howard can first sign his contract.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest, I think, to proceed in a timely fashion,” Kupchak said. “I don’t think it’s Dwight’s goal to drag it out.”
Yet, the Lakers hardly wasted time this week unveiling a series of billboards around Los Angeles, including Staples Center, pleading for Howard to remain with the team. The signs display a picture of Howard with the word, “STAY,” followed by the hashtag, “StayD12.”
Doesn’t such a move suggest the Lakers feel more uncertain than before about Howard’s intentions?
“It’s a sign of the future landscape. I think in the NBA with the new collective bargaining agreement, with the intent being to level the playing field as much as possible, I think you’ll see the way teams recruit and try to procure talent to change,” Kupchak said. “I think you have to be aggressive. You can’t take chances that you’re not doing enough and from our point of view, we wanted to be as aggressive and as proactive as possible. Yet, do it with what we feel was the right way without going overboard. The message is simple: We care about you and we want you to stay. It’s that simple.”
If only Howard’s free agency process becomes more simple.
Howard could resign with the Lakers for five years worth $118 million, as opposed to four years $87.6 million with other teams. But the financial difference softens a bit when considering a few important variables. California’s 13 percent state income tax trumps Texas’ zero state income tax. Barring good health from his surgically repaired back and torn labrum in his right shoulder, Howard likely could sign an extension after the third year of his contract worth a maximum salary.
“It’s reasonable to assume that the next contract that he signs won’t be his last,” Kupchak said. “But, there are decisions that he’ll have to work his way through. Everybody knows that you can get an extra year here and it’s a big number. I think that’s to our advantage. But, if you play well and you’re healthy, then you can sign another contract and that might be irrelevant. But that’s the tradeoff and that’s the gamble.”
The Lakers also say they’re willing to take the gamble of Howard walking without getting any in return. Kupchak strongly shot down any suggestion they’d perform a sign-and-trade, which could broaden Howard’s options to teams currently over the salary cap.
“If he wants to leave, he can just leave,” Kupchak said. “He doesn’t have to call us and ask our permission. He’s an unrestricted free agent and he can go to any team that has cap room. We want him back in a Los Angeles Laker uniform.”
The Lakers believed Howard continue wearing their uniform despite acquiring him last summer from the Orlando Magic without assurances he’d stay beyond one year.
The Lakers touted their storied franchise and the marketing opportunities Los Angeles brings would prove enough of a sell for Howard acquisition to stay. Things didn’t help that the Lakers lost in a first-round sweep to the San Antonio Spurs. Or that Howard felt frustration with Kobe Bryant’s demanding leadership style. Or that Howard didn’t like Mike D’Antoni’s system since it featured him less in the post and more on pick-and-rolls.
Yet, Kupchak said Howard and his representatives didn’t offer any dissatisfaction regarding D’Antoni or his system.
“No. I think as I mentioned at the end of the season, nobody is happy with anything,” Kupchak said.
He then went into how D’Antoni experienced initial struggles because of Steve Nash’s broken left leg that sidelined him until late December. Kupchak highlighted how D’Antoni tweaked his system enough so that the Lakers went 28-12 in the last 40 games.
“For the last 28-30 games of the season, we played some of the best basketball of anybody playing in the NBA,” Kupchak said. “I think at that point, everybody was very happy with the offense and with what we were doing offensively.”
Few Lakers fans were happy with Howard’s place, though.
Though he averaged 17.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds in his only season with the Lakers, those numbers represented Howard’s worst figures since the 2006-07 season with Orlando. D’Antonia and Bryant had challenged Howard’s toughness during his initial refusal to play through a shoulder injury. Teammates gave mixed messages on Howard’s frustration with not receiving the ball enough. Howard earned immediate scorn in the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to San Antonio where he earned an ejection for drawing two technical fouls.
But as Howard has gone through this public relations backlash, Kupchak believes he could overcome it in the same way Bryant once overcame controversial issues. That included his frequent clashes with Shaquille O’Neal, a sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped, free agency and trade demands.
“Kobe’s been back for seven or eight years now,” Kupchak said. “What did people think about him? There was a period where Kobe was earning his stripes in Los Angeles. I think when he came back, he had to continue. Here it is, seven, eight or nine years later and I think that’s what would happen with Dwight once he puts his roots down and says ‘This is the place I want to be.’
But is this where Howard wants to be? Kupchak concedes he hardly knows. Hence, why he admitted, “it’s not the most fun time of year to be honest with you.”
“Should Dwight leave, we’ll have a plan B,” Kupchak said. “But it’s not going to be as good as Plan A.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org