The Lakers usually come out of the trade deadline with a mostly intact roster geared for a championship run or a significant move destined to accelerate the rebuilding process.
This year, neither scenario happened.
The only move the Lakers made leading into the NBA’s trade deadline entailed sending Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for young, seldom-used shooting guards Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks, a deal that saved the Lakers about $4 million in salary and luxury taxes.
That means Pau Gasol survived yet another trade scenario. Jordan Hill also remains here to stay despite the Lakers inquiring various teams about him. But here’s bad news for the Lakers: they mostly have the same roster that has spiraled into last place in the Western Conference. Even more bad news for the Lakers: they failed to collect any additional draft picks for this year’s star studded class or fall under the luxury tax threshold.
So after Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak concluded a busy stretch of phone calls before Thursday’s noon cut-off time, he outlined that the Lakers quest to return back to their championship luster will take some time.
“It’s reasonable to think that every now and then, or maybe once every 10 years, or maybe once every 15 years, you might have a bad year. OK?” said Kupchak, perhaps mindful of the Lakers’ 16 NBA titles. “And we are not having a good year. Our hope and desire is that next year will be a lot better than this year and we certainly have the tools to begin the process.”
Yet, Kupchak refused to bemoan the Lakers moves, or lack thereof, during the trade deadline.
He mostly attributed the Lakers’ failure to grab a draft pick as a product of the new collective bargaining agreement and teams holding onto picks because most scouting experts consider this class among the most talented in years.
“Draft picks are assets. You always want to get a draft pick,” said Kupchak, who only has one first round pick, the Lakers’ first since 2007. “There’s only three ways to improve a team: through a trade, through a draft or through free agency. I’m not sure we believe that we have 10 years to do this through the draft. So, we’ve hoarded our cap space. We’ve tried to be diligent with it and how we’ve spent it and we do have a lot of flexibility going forward.”
The Lakers’ payroll remains at $76.9 million and the luxury tax threshold stays at $71.7 million. That leaves the Lakers vulnerable for the repeater tax, a penalty that 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.
“The organization is not motivated by saving X amount of dollars,” Kupchak said. “We were more concerned with making a basketball deal .. We had an opportunity to go below the tax threshold but there were no basketball components. That’s unacceptable with this organization.”
Several teams, including the Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers, have expressed interest in Gasol. But the Lakers were intent on acquiring draft picks for Gasol’s expiring $19.3 million contract. With Gasol becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1, there also weren’t assurances Gasol would stay with any team beyond this season. The Lakers talked with Brooklyn, Phoenix, Cleveland and Dallas, about trading Hill, but they couldn’t attract any draft picks in that offer, either.
Meanwhile, the Lakers haven’t offered a timetable on when Kobe Bryant will return from a fractured left leg. Kupchak said the Lakers will defer to Steve Nash on whether he will play out the last year of his contract next season worth $9.8 million after experiencing constant nerve irritation in his back.. Kupchak also guessed Lakers forward Nick Young will opt out of his player option.
So where does this leave the Lakers?
“Next year we’re going to have Kobe, who is healthy,” Kupchak said. “And we will have a good draft choice and we’ll have dollars to spend on free agents. So, it depends on who we can get in this summer.”
The Lakers aren’t expected to pursue possible high-level free agents this offseason, including Miami’s LeBron James (unrealistic) and New York’s Carmelo Anthony (not interested). Instead, it’s likely they’ll save up for the 2015 class that includes potential candidates, including Minnesota’s Kevin Love, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Boston’s Rajon Rondo, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Memphis’ Marc Gasol. Because with Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million extension through the 2015-16 season, the Lakers only have enough money to secure one high-level free agent.
“I don’t think that we’ll use our cap money to patch together a team for next year,” Kupchak said. “It may take more than one year to build, I don’t know. But just because we have a lot of money this summer, doesn’t mean we’ll spend it all. We’ll spend it wisely and if we can’t, then we’ll do the best we can this summer and then we’ll look maybe to the next summer. We don’t know how that’s going to play out right now.”
It sounds weird asking this considering the Lakers’ championship history and their proximity to Hollywood and the beach. But with the team’s recent losing and injury-riddled roster, would potential free agents even want to come here?
“With this organization and the support that we get from this city, I think this will always be a destination for players,” Kupchak said. “We do have to compete with the guidelines that players can get paid for salaries, whether it’s a max player, or a player that can get a bigger raise on his home team. So, that’s a challenge, but we’ll always be in the hunt because of the franchise, the ownership, the legacy and the city itself.”
Kupchak also downplayed the importance that Bryant returns this season so potential free agents can see how he’s recovered from his Achilles and knee injuries that has sidelined him for all but six games. Bryant wasn’t reevaluated by Dr. Steve Lombardo on Wednesday as originally planned considering he’s still experiencing soreness and swelling in his knee. Bryant has remained confined toward exercising on a stationary bike.
“We’re hopeful that he can get back on the court at some point,” Kupchak said. “We’re not going to push him to get back. I don’t see why you would. We’ve made a commitment to him for two more years .. . But if he feels he’s ready and he’s in shape and he gets the doctor’s approval, then there’s no reason why he couldn’t do that. There’s really no reason why anyone should speculate as to whether or not Kobe can get back next year at a high level. I think the bigger challenge is his age. But he’s shown over the years that he can adjust his game to his age.”
Bryant’s demanding leadership style partly influenced Dwight Howard’s defection with Houston. Will Bryant play an active role in free agency?
“I’m sure he’ll tell me the players that he’d like to have and if it’s in line with what we would like to have, then I think there will be some influence,” Kupchak said of Bryant, who voiced disapproval via Twitter of the Blake trade. “But if we’re on opposite ends, then there probably won’t be much influence.”
Magic Johnson recently said he’s asked Kupchak to help out with free agency recruiting efforts, too. Johnson sold his 4.5 ownership stake with the Lakers in 2010, but remains an unpaid vice president with the team.
“Hopefully Earvin’s looking for a second baseman,” Kupchak joked, referring to Johnson’s involvement with the Dodgers’ ownership group. “He’s always been quick to call and encourage when he was our vice president for so many years. He never said, ‘Mitch this is something I think you should do. I just want to call and touch base and what are you thinking, what do you see, is there anything I can do to help? I have called on him from time to time to help me, whether it’s I want to run something past you, can you meet with a player and make a phone call for me. Even though he’s working for the Dodgers now, that has not changed.”
Still, Johnson has criticized the Lakers plenty, ranging from the hiring of Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson and questioning the competence of vice president of player personnel Jim Buss.
“Earvin is Earvin. It comes from the heart,” Kupchak said. “It’s not like there’s some agenda there that he’s trying to accomplish something. He’s not in the office everyday and he’s probably not that familiar with the guidelines, CBA and rules and how hard it is to get a deal done and what’s going on in the locker room. But he’s a fan at heart. This organization has meant the world to him and he’s meant the world to the organization. So I will never Earvin, you have to stop doing this or not. When he does say something up, I will call him up and say, I appreciate you saying something nice. So I’m trying a little positive reinforcement versus reprimand.”
Kupchak downplayed, however, the ownership dynamic between president Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss following the near one-year anniversary of the passing of the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Kupchak also compared the Lakers’ recent troubles to when the team missed the playoffs in the 2004-05 season one year after trading Shaquille O’Neal to Miami.
“It’s natural when you lose an owner like that with Dr. Buss for people to say what’s going on,” Kupchak said. “But you have to trust the organization. Everyone is on the same page. We have a plan. I can’t guarantee you can execute a plan in six months, 12 months or 18 months. But we’re well positioned and the organization has chosen to follow Dr. Buss’ legacy, which is to win championships.”
Follow L.A. Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org