A smile bore on Mitch Kupchak’s face, suggesting eagerness for another season to start.
“What a treat!” the Lakers’ general manager greeted a larger number of media members Wednesday at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. But one particular topic emerged that shows the uncertainty the Lakers face when they begin training camp Saturday and beyond.
That involved Kobe Bryant, who continues rehabbing a left Achilles tendon that will keep him out for at least the beginning of training camp. The Lakers offered no update on whether Bryant ahs progressed from running on a weight-bearing treadmill at 75 percent of his body weight. Before his return, Bryant must run at full body weight and progress toward basketball-related drills.
That makes it unclear if he will return for the Lakers’ season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers, or any of the team’s eight exhibition games through Oct. 25.
“I do believe he’ll get back and he’ll play this season,” Kupchak said of Bryant. “You won’t be able to look at him and say he’s hurt. He’ll get back on the court and will be healthy. But he is 35 and his game has been evolving anyway in the last two or three years.”
There’s another uncertainty involving Bryant, and it has nothing to do with his rehabilitation. It has everything to do with his future.
Kupchak acknowledged he and Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, haven’t discussed signing an extension for Bryant, who will enter this season earning $30.45 million in the final year of his contract. Bryant would earn $32 million next season if he seeks the maximum five percent raise over his current salary. But with more punitive luxury tax penalties and the Lakers hope to have financial flexibility for next year’s loaded free agent class, it’s likely Bryant would have to sign at a reduced salary.
Kupchak declined to address that issue, calling it “speculative” and “negotiating through the press, ” perhaps out of respect for the 17-year NBA veteran that brought the Lakers five NBA championships.
“Kobe has made it clear he intends to retire in a Laker uniform,” Kupchak said. “I know as an organization we feel the same way.”
Still, the Lakers won’t begin talks with Bryant on an extension until he returns. After all, the Lakers are curious to what degree Bryant can mirror last season’s output when he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, six assists and 5.6 rebounds.
“I think he wants to do the same thing,” Kupchak said. “If you think for a second if Kobe can’t play at a high level or up to his expectations, that he wants to continue to play, I don’t think that’s in his DNA. I think it makes sense for him and for us to get him back on the court and get a feel and a gauge of how much longer he wants to play and at what level.”
That’s why Kupchak envisions Bryant taking on more of a facilitating role this season. Well, almost.
“He may decide to get players involved more and do things differently,” Kupchak said. “But if we’re down by two or down by three, the Kobe we know and love will take the last shot. He may be limping and dragging, but he will take the last shot.”
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