The Lakers want to win as many NBA championships as possible. So does Kobe Bryant.
But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak strongly suggested on Friday that he will place higher priority this offseason on protecting the team’s financial flexbility and youth long-term interests than ensuring Kobe Bryant a good enough roster to win an NBA championship next season. Then, Bryant will return following a season-ending right shoulder injury in what would likely mark the end of a storied 20-year NBA career.
“At some point we have to start a new run, and that’s definitely going to include Kobe next year,” Kupchak said on Friday with a small panel of reporters that regularly cover the Lakers. “To jeopardize the next five or seven years – I’m maybe getting ahead of myself – bring in old veterans that make a lot of money, just to win one more year, because that’s Kobe’s last year or could be his last year, I’m not sure that fits into doing it the right way.”
That somewhat contradicts Bryant’s expectation he outlined in a recent interview with GQ where he said the Lakers ‘front office is “hell-bent about having a championship caliber team next season, as am I.” Lakers coach Byron Scott also expressed optimism Bryant could play even after his $25 million contract expires after next season presuming he stays healthy, though Bryant has offered no indication he would do that.
“At this point it’s really not something that you would talk about. He just had a very complex surgery and he’s under contract for another year, so we’ve got to get, he has to get back where he feels he can perform at a high level,” Kupchak said of Bryant. “That’s like months and months down the road. So to really look beyond that from our point of view is not realistic. I think what Byron was saying, if he didn’t get hurt, and he returns to be able to play at that level, then he probably could contribute going forward, but there are too many ifs right now for us to sit down and try to predict a plan.”
The Lakers’ current plan differs from their strategy in previous years.
The Lakers traded four draft picks to acquire Steve Nash in 2012, a move that backfired as the veteran guard became limited with chronic injuries to his back and hamstrings. The Lakers also acquired Dwight Howard in a four-team trade in Orlando in 2012 without assurances he would re-sign with the Lakers once he became a free agent the following summer. He signed with the Houston Rockets and the Lakers received nothing in return.
This year, the Lakers could avoid owing their first-round pick to Phoenix if it lands in the top five. The Lakers will have a mid first-round pick from Houston stemmed from the Jeremy Lin trade. And the Lakers could have as many as two second-round picks.
That explains why Kupchak called it “premature” how he will approach free agency, adding that the team’s draft order and who they select in the NBA Draft in June will determine to what degree they pursue free agents in July. The Lakers (13-40) have arguably 29 uneventual remaining games, including Friday’s contest against the Brooklyn Nets (21-31) at Staples Center. Yet, any losses could help the Lakers in securing a top-five pick.
Although Kupchak, “I understand why people would say that,” he stressed the Lakers are not instructed to lose games on purpose.
“I just don’t know how you send that message to a coaching staff or players,” said Kupchak, who will spend part of his weekend scouting at unspecified NCAA games. “That’s just not something that we want people to think that we would do.”
Regardless, how realistic is it for the Lakers to improve significantly next season off offseason moves considering they enter Friday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets (21-31) at Staples Center with a 13-40 record?
“It can turn quickly, but a lot of it’s out of our control,” Kupchak said. “If you have picks and you have a lot of financial flexibility, there are a lot of ways to improve your team quickly. I can’t sit here and say that’s what we’re planning on. We’re going to look to do this the right way, which is to try to make prudent decisions about youth and veterans and making commitments to players under the existing rules. I’d love to be able to put together a young team that can win 55 games next year, but it’s not that easy. It’s just not that easy. It’s not off the table. It’s our goal, but we want to make sure we do it the right way.”
That explains why the Lakers declined on making a move prior to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline despite the league featuring a record 39 players being dealt. Kupchak described the Lakers as having “some activity,” which NBA sources said included pursuing Phoenix guard Goran Dragic before he was ultimately traded to Miami. But the Lakers refused to part with any of their draft picks or with rookies Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
“There were a lot of limitations as to what you could do yesterday,” Kupchak said in general terms.”But having said that, there were a couple things we were looking at and didn’t come to fruition.”
It also did not help that the Lakers had very few assets.
Lakers veteran forward Carlos Boozer could not be traded because he was acquired last summer through the amnesty wire. It is believed that Jordan Hill’s two-year deal that includes a $9 million team option allows him to block any trade. Nick Young is in the first year of a four-year, $21.5 million contract, but has struggled with his shooting accuracy. Jeremy Lin has an expiring $14.8 million contract with $8 million of it counted against the salary cap. But he has struggled with inconsistency this season.
That led Kupchak to credit Lakers coach Byron Scott, arguing his record partly reflects season-ending injuries to Bryant (right shoulder), Nash (back), Randle (right leg) and Xavier Henry (left Achilles tendon).
“Byron and his staff have done a great job under adverse conditions,” Kupchak said. “It’s important for our coaches to maintain a culture of spirited practices, players playing hard in games.”
Kupchak then alluded to how the Lakers roster has plenty of players trying to cement their NBA future. Boozer, Lin, Ronnie Price and Wesley Johnson will become unrestricted free agents. The Lakers have team options on Clarkson, Hill, Tarik Black and Robert Sacre. Lakers forward Ed Davis will opt out of his $1.2 million player option in hopes of securing a long-term deal with the Lakers.
“A lot of our players are one expiring contracts so they should be playing hard anyway,” Kupchak said. “You would think they would. And if they don’t, they’re showing you something. But playing hard doesn’t necessarily mean you go out and play for yourself either. You don’t want that guy on your team either.”