For his next trick, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak will somehow try to accelerate the team’s rebuilding process with one hand tied behind his back and the other hand holding very few poker chips.
The Lakers received a sobering dose of news by receiving the seventh overall pick in next month’s NBA Draft, adding more misfortunes amid a season full of them.
“It wasn’t bad luck,” Kupchak said Wednesday on a conference call. “We could’ve dropped down to number nine. We were hoping to get lucky, or worse case, stay where we were. It could’ve been worse.”
The Lakers’ seventh pick likely deprives them of landing a top prospect, such as Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins as well as Duke’s Jabari Parker and Australia’s Dante Exum. But Kupchak disagreed with the recent suggested from Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who said about his sixth pick, “I don’t think anyone’s going to come in and change the face of our franchise right out of the gate.”
“We think drafting at number seven, there will be a good player available there,” Kupchak said. “Maybe Danny is talking about a guy who changes the face of the organization from the get go. But you can’t evaluate these things until later when you look back on it.”
Still, the Lakers will also likely face challenges dangling such a pick in a trade, such as one for Minnesota’s Kevin Love.
“The higher the pick the more value it has,” Kupchak said. “But a sixth pick or a seventh pick certainly has value.”
Kupchak invoked last year’s rookie of the year candidate in Portland guard Damian Lillard, who was selected sixth overall. Recent seventh-pick selections include Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Detroit’s Greg Monroe. Kupchak plans to start bringing in players for individual workouts. The Lakers interviewed with Kentucky forward Julius Randle and Oklahoma City guard Marcus Smart last week at the NBA pre-draft combine.
“It depends,” said Kupchak, before mentioning the possible discrepancy between the likely younger top prospects at the top of the draft versus the more experienced ones selected afterwards. “You do have to work with a younger player and those are the guys that get drafted the highest. Whether as a freshman or sophomore, it may take a year or two.”
Could such a player be a starter on the Lakers?
“We only have four guys under contract right now,” Kupchak joked, alluding to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Kendall Marshall.
Kupchak has plenty to address in revamping a team that finished with a 27-55 record, sixth worst in the NBA. They experienced serious injuries to Bryant (left Achilles tendon, fractured left knee) and Steve Nash (nerve root irritation in back). The Lakers will likely have 12 of their 15 players on their current roster become free agents.
But Kupchak also has to find the Lakers’ next head coach after Mike D’Antoni resigned nearly three weeks ago. The Lakers did not reach out to any candidates, however, partly because they wanted to see how their draft order would affect their rebuilding approach. Kupchak downplayed that component, but indicated he has started interviewed candidates.
“I would not anticipate hiring a coach within the next two or three weeks,” Kupchak said. “We’ll interview several, more than three or four probably.”
The Lakers have remained open toward hiring veteran coaches (George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Van Gundy), familiar names (Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott), young coaches (Mark Jackson) and even potential wild cards (Thunder guard Derek Fisher). Kupchak declined to outline how he will measure whether to opt for a veteran or young coach. But he placed heavy importance on how that coach featured Bryant offensively, mindful the Lakers star has two years remaining on his contract and played only six games last season because of two major injuries (left Achilles tendon, fractured left knee).
“We think he’s a very integral part of this team so we have to make sure that whoever we hire as a coach really gets the most productivity out of him, whether it’s scoring the ball, playmaking or the threat that he may score. That’s of primary importance right now,” Kupchak said. “Over the years, his game has changed from where he was wild, athletic and at times out of control in the early part of his career. In the last seven or eight years, he’s been more deliberate and of course has gotten a little bit older.”
So where would Bryant be most effective?
“I think he’s become most effective when you see a lot of him posting up,” Kupchak said. “You will see the ball in his hands making plays. At the end of games, he’s going to have the ball in his hands and if he gets a call, he will make free throws.. The Kobe today is different than the Kobe 15 years ago. I don’t think that’s a secret. I think Kobe knows where on the court where he will be most effective, whether it’s playmaking, being a decoy or scoring the ball.”