The Lakers’ historically sturdy foundation crumbled even further. Their 21-61 record cemented the worst finish in the franchise’s 67-year-old history and ensured a missed playoff appearance for the second consecutive season, providing an obvious conclusion the Lakers face a busy offseason rebuilding project.
But with the dust still clearing amid the rubble, the Lakers seem clouded by the most pressing question surrounding a franchise that won 16 NBA championships. How long will it take to return there?
Lakers executive vice president of player personnel, Jim Buss, has reportedly told her sister, Jeanie, the Lakers president, he would step down if the Lakers do not reach the Western Conference Finals within three years. Jeanie Buss said last month she would keep the team accountable to that timeline or else she would make changes.
“I didn’t see that quote. I never saw that quote,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said on Thursday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo following exit meetings. “What’s my sense of being in the conference finals within three years? I think it’s possible. But what if you get to the conference semifinals, you lose in seven [games] and you have a great team that you know is going to get better and better? So I don’t think there is anything etched in stone that would determine any change in direction. Three years from now is forever.”
So how quickly can the Lakers improve at least next season?
“It can get better quick,” Kupchak said. “Every year, we have the same goal, which is to win a championship. We can get better quickly. We can be in the hunt quickly.”
Yet, Kupchak said that largely hinges on the Lakers fortunes in the NBA draft lottery on May 19th. Then, the Lakers will find out if their 82.8 percent chances of retaining their top-five pick happens. Otherwise, the Lakers will owe the selection to Philadelphia as part of the Steve Nash trade.
“We’d like to have something in our pocket for the way the year went,” Kupchak said.
Then, Kupchak would determine how he would use the pick. Although Kupchak said “this would be a good draft to participate in,” the Lakers’ general manager held all options open on what he would do with both a top-five protected pick and a late first-round selection Houston owes the Lakers as part of the Jeremy Lin trade.
The Lakers could use either or both as part of a trade for a star player. Even with the emergence of Lakers’ rookie guard Jordan Clarkson, Kupchak still said he remains open toward pursuing both point guards and post players in the draft and free agency. Kupchak expressed uncertainty whether they will exercise Jordan Hill’s team option $9 million team option. But Kupchak sounded open to negotiate with Lakers forward Ed Davis, who plans to opt out of his $1.2 million player option in hopes of a long-term deal.
“We’d love to have Ed Davis on our team,” Kupchak said. “I thought Ed had a great year.”
Kupchak also said the Lakers will become “active participants” in pursuing marquee free agents. They have enough cap flexibility to sign one player to a max-level contract, with possibilities including Memphis Marc Gasol, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Miami’s Goran Dragic or Dallas’ Rajon Rondo.
Kupchak still touted the Lakers’ market, fan base, Los Angeles’ appeal and the Laker’s championship history as advantages in the free agency sweepstakes despite missing out on both retaining Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol as well as acquiring LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
“When we entertain or recruit free agents, we rarely sell the past and legacy here,” Kupchak said. “That’s not something we roll out there because the players really don’t want to hear about it. They want to know about the team you’re building, the opportunity and what they’ll be looking at going forward. So that’s what we’ll try to sell them on.”
Yet, Kupchak conceded uncertainty on one of the Lakers’ primary question marks. How will Kobe Bryant look in the 2015-16 season after averaging 22.3 Points on a career-low 37.3 percent shooting in 35 games before tearing his rotator cuff in his right shoulder?
“I don’t know,” Kupchak said of Bryant. “I do know he’s going to work as hard as anybody can work during the offseason to get his shoulder right and keep his body in shape.”
Kupchak then added Bryant’s role will largely hinge on how well the Lakers assemble their roster.
“The makeup of the team right now is just not clear enough for us to drop Kobe in and say, ‘This is what we expect. Can you do it?'” Kupchak said.
Bryant has one year left on his contract worth $25 million, but he has declined to say whether his 20th season will mark his last year. He said he likely will not know about his future until the 2015-16 season ends and suggested he could play another year.
“I have not heard that from him,” Kupchak said. “I have assumed that he has one year to go and is 36 now. That’s all I can plan on. That’s all he’s planning on. A year from now, maybe different. But right now, that’s all we’re planning on.”
Hence, Kupchak said Bryant’s uncertain future will not affect into his decision-making this summer. Instead, Kupchak looked at other variables, including their draft position and the team’s want to still maintain financial flexibility even if only Bryant, Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly and Nick Young have guaranteed contracts.
“We’re not going to use cap room just to use cap room and maybe improve. I can use the expression 20 games because we won so few games this year. We don’t want to end up using our cap room and winning 40 games. That year doesn’t get you in the playoffs,” Kupchak said. “That’s not to say the only player we’ll spend our money on is a max player. We do have to balance how you use that money and two years from now there’s a dramatic change in terms of the landscape with the cap.”
Kupchak was referring to the NBA’s record-breaking nine-year television contract with ESPN and Turner Broadcast worth a reported $24 billion beginning in the 2017 offseason. That may entice marquee free agents to sign one-year deals with a one-year option to maximize the increase in basketball related revenue.
But first things first. Kupchak will wait to see how things play out during the NBA Draft lottery.
“It would be great to be rewarded to get a pick,” Kupchak said. “That gives you a valuable chip whether you draft a player or trade for a player with that. From there, we’ll look at what we have and look at our options to bring back players on this team.”
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