Amid all the question marks surrounding Kobe Bryant’s recent right shoulder injury and what would mark his third major rehabilitation for three consecutive years, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sounded adamant on at least two things.
Bryant will return for the 2015-16 season to finish out the last year of his contract worth $25 million.
“I don’t think he’s retiring,” said Kupchak, who spoke with Bryant on Thursday morning. “He said he’s looking forward to training camp. That’s what we expect.”
Kupchak also said he feels “100 percent” convinced the Lakers made the right decision in signing Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension on Nov. 2013. Telling words considering Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon eight months earlier and then suffered a season-ending left knee injury a month later after playing only six games. In his 19th NBA season, Bryant averaged 22.3 points albeit on a career-low 37.3 percent shooting in 35 games before tearing his right rotator cuff in his right shoulder, an ailment Kupchak described as a “devastating injury.”
“We have no regrets at all,” Kupchak said on Bryant’s extension. “Because he is worth every penny of it.”
Bryant has benefited the Lakers, obviously. He won five NBA championships and climbed this season to third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Bryant’s star power and global appeal meshes well with the Lakers’ global brand and lucrative cable deal with Time Warner Cable Access SportsNet.
But the Lakers still only had one max-caliber contract available to sign a marquee free agent. Kupchak noted “we were as aggressive as we could be during the offseason” as the Lakers pursued both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But James left Miami for Cleveland, while Anthony stayed in New York.
The Lakers only have four players under contract for the 2015-16 season, including Bryant, Nick Young, Julius Randle and Ryan Kelly totaling about $35 million. That leaves the Lakers with roughly $24 million to fill out their roster and one maximum salary-contract available to pursue a marquee free agent. The Lakers then suffered season-ending injuries to veteran guard Steve Nash (back), Randle (right leg) and reserve swingman Xavier Henry (left Achilles).
Kupchak conceded how the Lakers fare in the offseason will be a “big key” in ensuring Bryant stays healthy and efficient for the 2015-16 season.
“We have to improve the talent level on the team,” Kupchak said. “It’s difficult to play when you’re going to lose three or four games or five games. When you’re winning games, it’s a lot easier to get ready to play and play through aches and pains. To me, a big part of Kobe’s contribution next year is if we can improve this team during the offseason.”
Although Kupchak noted the team has “an awful lot of financial flexibility,” he would not share his outlook on landing a marquee free agent, such as Memphis’ Marc Gasol, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Phoenix’s Goran Dragic or Dallas’ Rajon Rondo. Instead, Kupchak mentioned the Feb. 19 trade deadline and the 2015 NBA Draft.
The Lakers (12-34) have a first-round pick from Houston stemmed from the Jeremy Lin trade as well as two conditional second round picks. But the Lakers will owe a first-round pick to Phoenix stemmed from the Steve Nash trade if they land out of the top five.
Said Kupchak: “A top five pick is always a good thing.”
“Our coaches and players have been instructed to win games,” Kupchak said. “Maybe I used the wrong word, ‘instructed.’ I don’t have to instruct players to win games and to try to win games, I don’t have to instruct Byron [Scott] to do anything.”
Kupchak also defended Scott on how he managed Bryant’s minutes. Scott initially played Bryant between 30-40 minutes through the Lakers’ first 27 games. He then cited his minute mismanagement for Bryant’s depleted energy and shooting accuracy. So Scott rested Bryant during most practices and shootarounds as well as eight of the last 16 games leading up to his injury.
“Byron is saying the right thing and doing the right thing, but I don’t think that had anything to do with anything, certainly not the injury,” Kupchak said. “Maybe there’s a little bit of soreness that Kobe experienced, but not because he played 10 games at maybe five or seven minutes more per game than he normally did. I don’t think that was an issue. But Byron is saying or doing the right thing.”
Kupchak held similar optimism during the 2014 training camp. Despite Bryant coming off two major injuries to his left Achilles and left knee, Kupchak expressed confidence the Lakers’ star would successfully navigate the grind of an 82-game NBA season.
“Just knowing Kobe, if he’s healthy, he would want to play every game,” Kupchak said. “He wanted to play every game. I think Byron made, with our support, him sit down at certain times to try to get the best we could out of him. But I don’t think that had anything to do with the shoulder injury whatsoever.”
But now that Bryant has a right shoulder injury, a long road awaits as the Lakers lose what Kupchak called “a great, great player for the rest of the year.”
Bryant will stay in a sling for about six weeks. Kupchak estimated that Bryant will rehab between three or four months before he begins running and other leg workouts. Kupchak believed Bryant will need time beyond that, perhaps the full nine months, before the tendon in his right shoulder fully heals.
“I feel bad for Kobe. He had a spectacular career, ” Kupchak said. “Two and a half years ago in the playoff run he rolls and tears an Achilles tendon. He makes a dramatic comeback next year, then breaks a bone in his knee. And he makes another dramatic comeback and really proved he can play in this league at a very, very high level. Now he goes out with a season-ending injury. It’s part of the business. Every team in the league goes through it. I wouldn’t call it a nightmare, but I feel bad for Kobe.”
Given the unpredictable nature regarding injuries in sports, Kupchak sounded uncertain to what degree the Lakers will become more conservative with Bryant’s workload in what would mark his 20th NBA season. Nonetheless, Scott has said he ideally would like to play him in the low-to-mid 20-minute range.
“It depends,” Kupchak said. “There’s been a long recovery and it’s expected he’ll be back completely recovered. But sometimes you come back a month early or sometimes it means you come back a month later. So we’ll have to see how it plays out. There was good news yesterday that they expected a complete recovery. That’s the best news we could’ve received.”