Mitch Kupchak describes talk leading up to trade deadline as “pretty quiet”

In between bites of food at the Chick Hearn Press room, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed something far more stomach churning.

The team’s 2013-14 season.

“Unfortunately, the hole we dug is deep,” Kupchak said Thursday before the Lakers hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center. “Going into the trade deadline, our approach is going to be different than in years past.”

It seems pretty certain the Lakers will miss the playoffs for only the sixth time in franchise history and that they will have a first round pick for the first time since 2007. The Lakers entered Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City ranked 14th in the Western Conference. There’s far less certainty, however, on what the Lakers will do heading into the Feb. 20 trade deadline, which Kupchak described as “pretty quiet.”

“If you’re asking me if we’ll pick up somebody that will help us this year, I think that’s probably not the approach we’re taking,” Kupchak said. “Picks are more valuable than they’ve ever been. There’s only three ways to improve a team – trade, free agency or a draft pick. We’ll look to do it. If there’s an opportunity there, I can’t say it’s likely at this time.”

Such uncertainty involves the future of Pau Gasol, who’s been involved with numerous trade discussions ever since NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal three years ago that would’ve brought Chris Paul to the Lakers.

The Lakers and Suns discussed a scenario last week that would send Gasol to the Phoenix Suns, though the trade could hinge on how many first-round draft picks Phoenix would send the Lakers.

“My preference would be to stay,” Gasol told reporters on Thursday. “That’s what I’ve been saying all year even though the circumstances are difficult for our team. Nobody is too happy. But it’s still my team and I still want to be here.”

Kupchak declined talking about Gasol’s standing with the Lakers. But Gasol isn’t expected to return until at least Wednesday against Houston, the day before the deadline. A crop of other injured players, including Kobe Bryant (left knee), Nick Young (left knee), Jordan Farmar (left hamstring) and Jodie Meeks (right ankle) could return. Their presence could help the Lakers win games, but couldn’t it hurt their chances with the NBA Draft lottery?

“Winning is never a bad thing,” Kupchak said. “If you try to manipulate the draft, I’m not a karma guy, but if you try to manipulate this thing, it doesn’y work out the way you think it works out. You’re better off doing the right thing to do and whatever happens happens for the right reason.”

Kupchak believes he’s seen that, lauding the injury-ravaged team’s effort and praising Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, saying, “under very trying circumstances, I think he’s done a great job.” Kupchak also offered sympathy for Steve Nash struggling with nerve irritation in his back and expressed zero regrets acquiring him from Phoenix nearly two years ago despite costing them a pair of first and second-round picks.

There’s other pressing matters.

The Lakers’ payroll remains at $78.9 million and the luxury tax threshold stays at $71.7 million. But Kupchak called staying below that line is “not a big concern at all.” Kupchak also downplayed the importance of staying below that number despite giving the Lakers a chance to avoid the so-called “repeater’s tax.” That penalty applies to teams that spend over the luxury tax in four of five seasons since the NBA’s new labor deal was constructed in 2011.

But it’s clear the Lakers are gearing up for Kupchak called “a really good draft.” Kupchak plans to attend several college basketball games next weekend, including Syracuse-Duke and Wake Forest-North Carolina. Kupchak also plans to travel to Europe later this month. But Kupchak said the Lakers’ scouting department has viewed the same number of college games as in years past.

“It’s likely we’ll get a more valuable pick this year,” Kupchak said. “It might be easier to concentrate as far as I’m concerned. But the staff sees all the players that need to be seen.”

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