The soda stayed firmly in Mitch Kupchak’s hand. The Lakers’ general manager soon joked he had actually been nursing his third Rum and Coke.
Did it reflect Kupchak’s sorrow over Kobe Bryant’s announcement on Sunday that he would retire following the 2015-16 season? Or did it convery Kupchak’s celebration on having clarity on Bryant’s ending? The answer is neither. Kupchak obviously wasn’t drinking. The Lakers’ general manager also offered pragmatism on the implications on Bryant retiring after the final year of his contract worth $25 million ends.
“I’m not surprised, the surprising part of this is that he made this announcement,” Kupchak said. “My understanding all along was that this was going to be his last year. Certainly there’s been speculation and this puts an end to any speculation that he may come back for another year. But it was my understanding all along.”
Bryant had partly fueled that speculation both because of his star power and his insistence to leave his future open-ended. After playing only 35 games last season before needing surgery on his right shoulder, Bryant had publicly said he leaned toward retiring once his contract ended. But he said he “probably” would not know about his future until the 2015-16 season ended.
With Bryant formalizing his decision sooner than expected, Kupchak reflected on the development in two ways.
He waxed nostalgic on Bryant’s prolific career that entailed five NBA championships, a third place-standing on the league’s all-time scoring list, two NBA Finals MVP’s, one NBA regular-season MVP and 17 NBA All-Star appearances.
“He’s a winner and he came into this league with an unprecedented desire to compete and get better and be the best,” Kupchak said. “He remains that exact same person today, and that’s with the goods and the bad that come with it. But he remains that exact same person.”
Kupchak also acknowledged the Lakers have more clarity on the team’s future. With Bryant’s contract coming off the books, the Lakers will have enough money to sign two marquee free agents to max contracts.
“It’s difficult to predict the future,” Kupchak said. “But now that we don’t have to deal with speculation and try to predict what may or may not happen with the remainder of the year, we know with certainty what our cap situation will be.”
But before that, Kupchak acknowledged the Lakers have been in an “awkward” position.
In a controversial move, the Lakers had signed Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension on Nov. 2013, a month before he rehabbed from a torn left Achilles tendon. He then played only six games before needing season-ending left knee surgery. Last season, Bryant lasted 35 games before needing season-ending right shoulder surgery.
Bryant has tried to produce a compelling last chapter in his 20th NBA season. But he has averaged 15.5 points, while shooting a career-low 30.5 percent from the field and 20.2 percent from 3-point range.
“There really was no other way to go about it,” Kupchak said. “When you have a player of Kobe’s caliber that wants to continue to play and you think he can play at a high level, you’re going to let him play until he no longer wants to play.”
Yet, the Lakers could not attract another high profile free agent in the past three years. They could not retain Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol in consecutive offseasons. They whiffed on acquiring LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe, and DeAndre Jordan. Amid the Lakers two missed playoff appearances in the last two years, the Lakers depended on the draft to assemble their roster. Their main core of players include point guard D’Angelo Russell (No. 2 pick of 2015 Draft), power forward Julius Randle (No. 7 pick of 2014 Draft) and guard Jordan Clarkson (No. 46 pick of 2014 Draft).
“We didn’t make it any easier for him with the group we have on the court,” Kupchak said of Bryant. “That’s not to say they’re not a talented group of players. But they’re certainly young and unaccomplished. At an advanced age, I think we’ve witnessed that it’s difficult to play this game. He’s certainly struggled to play at the tempo and a pace that I think younger players, and I think the game, is being played today.”
Add Bryant’s rustiness and the Lakers’ youthful learning curve, and the Lakers have the Western Conference’s worst record (2-14). That marks a stark contrast to Kupchak’s pre-season expectations on making the NBA playoffs, though he has since admitted he thought otherwise.
“I’m not going to say we thought we could win 50 games this year,” Kupchak said. “If we got to the point where I thought we could win half our games, that would be a good season. That was our expectations going into the season. It’s a process.”
Yet, Kupchak declined to comment on how Lakers coach Byron Scott has handled that process in the second-year of a four-year deal worth $17 million, including a team option on the final season. Instead, Kupchak kept the focus on Bryant.
“I think the game will be easier for him now,” Kupchak said. “I think he’ll be able to enjoy the rest of the season.”
But how will Bryant spend the rest of the season?
Kupchak said he has not had any conversations internally on whether Bryant should play fewer than the 31.1 minutes per game he has averaged. Kupchak also playfully brushed off any notion that Bryant should shoot less and pass more amid his scoring struggles.
“I gave up hoping that he would change his approach 15 or 18 years ago,” Kupchak said, smiling. “He is what he is, and I’m thankful for it.”
Kupchak also sounded thankful that Bryant has embraced mentoring his younger teammates with strategic tips, film analysis and advice. Even if Bryant boasts a team-leading 16.9 field-goal attempts, he often has provided positive reinforcement toward Russell, Clarkson and Randle through both the good and the bad. He publicly has embraced that role, too.
“He’s never been a guy to put an arm around the player and slowly walk to the locker room,” Kupchak said. “He’s always been the guy barking a little more than putting your arm around and pushing from behind. Everybody leads in their own way. But I know for a fact that everybody in our locker room looks up to this guy and respects him. Who could not after 19 seasons with what he accomplished?”