HOUSTON — Mitch Kupchak exuded a sense of calmness over the phone, even if the Lakers general manager addressed a wide-range of issues with this newspaper that plague the purple and gold.
The never-ending injuries. The uncertainty leading into the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Whether the Lakers (14-21) will miss the postseason for only the sixth time in franchise history. But that didn’t stop Kupchak from uttering words about Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni perhaps foreign to what’s written on message boards and voiced on the airwaves.
“Six weeks ago, I thought he would’ve been candidate for coach of the year,” Kupchak said, praising D’Antoni on how he managed a roster full of castoffs despite never-ending injuries. “A month and a half later, our record is what it is. I know I’ll get criticized and he’ll get criticized. But the coaches in this league can’t win without players. That’s my job. I thought we were deep enough in the backcourt. Maybe we weren’t. But you can’t win in this league without players.”
Kupchak also stayed firm on signing Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension shortly before fracturing his left knee only six games after returning from a torn left Achilles tendon.
“His most recent injury had nothing to do with Achilles,” Kupchak said. “If he had blown out his Achilles, you might think why did he come back so quickly. But you can’t do that. The knee just hyperextended and that’s very natural. It’s not a major injury. He’ll be back and better than ever.”
The Lakers will have to be patient, though.
They have long-term injuries to Bryant (fractured left knee), Steve Nash (nerve issues in back), Steve Blake (hyperextended right elbow) Jordan Farmar (strained left hamstring) and xavier Henry (bone bruise in right knee). The Lakers will evaluate Henry sometime next week, but the Bryant, Nash, Blake and Farmar aren’t expected back until early February. Meanwhile, the Lakers enter a seven-game, 11-day trip that could dampen the team’s playoff chances.
“There’s time to right the ship and get back in the the playoff run,” Kupchak said. “I’m hopeful our players will continue to fight. I know our coaches will. We’ll see where it ends. Of course, we’d like to have a better record right now.”
How do the Lakers do that with so many injuries?
“The only thing we can do is to play as hard, coach as hard and support the team as much as possible,” Kupchak said. “If we can do that come April, we may not be happy with the record. But I know the team gave everything they possibly could give. That’s the best we can do.”
Meanwhile, Kupchak conceded he’ll work the phones heavily leading into the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Is it safe to presume everyone outside of Bryant remains up for grabs?
“I don’t even want to single out one person,” Kupchak said. “I’ll leave you to speculate. I think it’s pretty easy. I trust your ability to look at our roster and think this guy might not be going anywhere.”
“If there’s an opportunity to help us win right away, or an opportunity to help us plan for next year or the year after, then we’ll look at those opportunities.”
The Lakers had negotiated last week with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a deal involving Pau Gasol, but Cleveland ultimately traded Andrew Bynum to Chicago for All-Star forward Luol Deng and a flurry of draft picks. The Lakers held firm they would only do so if they received valued young players and draft picks. The Lakers had no interest in making the deal solely to waive Bynum, a move coupled with Gasol’s departure that would’ve secured $20 million in luxury taxes. The Lakers’ payroll remains at $78.9 million and the luxury tax threshold at $71.7 million. But Kupchak downplayed the importance of doing that despite giving the Lakers a chance to avoid the so-called “repeater’s tax,” which kicks in when teams spend over the luxury tax in four of five seasons ever since the NBA’s new labor deal was constructed in 2011.
“It is a factor in planning. It is a business. The new collective bargaining agreement is such as that you have to be careful what you allocate and where,” Kupchak said. “Strategically, it’s a factor. But with Dr. Buss and present ownership, it has never been a driving force that interferes what is best for the organization in terms of providing for our TV partners, radio partners and our fans.”
The Lakers have one first and second round draft pick for the next six years. How important are those?
“It’s much harder than it used to be,” Kupchak said. “They are so much more valuable now than they were.
I’d loe to end with a great pick one day, but we’re not used to it. We’ll do it the other way if we have to.”
But Kupchak said doing so won’t involve the Lakers tanking.
“That’s the worst thing an owner, general manager, coach or player can even consider. I can’t imagine going into a locker room or having a closed door meeting with a coach to say I want you to lose,” Kupchak said. “I can’t imagine doing that. It’s almost un American.”
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