A busy offseason awaits the Lakers that should give general manager Mitch Kupchak little sleep.
Will the ping pong balls bounce the Lakers’ way so they can keep their top-3 protected draft pick? Will the Lakers make good use of their cap money freed with Kobe Bryant’s impending retirement? Will the Lakers retain coach Byron Scott after experiencing another season out of playoff contention and in the Western Conference cellar?
Kupchak declined to address the latter issue on Wednesday as Scott oversees the Lakers (11-44) likely finishing with their worst season in franchise history for the second consecutive year.
“Byron is under contract,” Kupchak said at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. “Until that changes or if that changes, we’ll let you know.”
Scott has two years left on a contract worth $8.5 million, including guaranteed salary for next year. But that has not stopped the Lakers from parting ways with their coaches in past years. The Lakers fired Mike Brown five games in only his second season (2012). Mike D’Antoni resigned after his second season (2014).
Despite Scott overseeing Lakers going 21-61 last season, Kupchak routinely praised Scott for his work ethic, positive attitude and ensuring that his players competed. But Kupchak offered no such words when a reporter asked him if he thought Scott has done a good job in his second year coaching the Lakers.
“I don’t want to get into a Byron discussion right now,” Kupchak said. “I’m not going to answer any more questions about Byron. My concern is one question will lead to another. If his status changes, I’ll let you know.”
Minutes later, a Lakers official interrupted a question pertaining to the criticism Scott received regarding how he has handled rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell. Kupchak then declined to answer it.
Ever since December, the Lakers planned to retain Scott for the 2015-16 season before evaluating him in the summer. At the time, the Lakers had sympathy for Scott handling numerous challenges including Bryant’s last season and developing a crop of young players. Some Lakers officials not connected to the front office have privately expressed frustration about the team’s record and Scott’s tough love toward young players. But it’s not clear to what degree the Lakers’ front office shares those same sentiments.
Still, Kupchak became more forthcoming on other topics.
He considered it “unlikely” the Lakers will make a deal before Thursday’s deadline. That’s because the Lakers will not trade Bryant and the team appears intent on keeping its young players, including Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown. The Lakers could package any combination of Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, but it appears unclear if any teams would have interest.
Kupchak also outlined the biggest thing he is evaluating in the Lakers’ 27 remaining games.
“The big part of our team until the end of the season is to make sure our young players develop and continue to play hard and be aggressive,” said Kupchak, who reported talking to them on Wednesday morning. “You want to see them in face of this adversity in a tough season and to show some mental toughness to push through it and show me your best. It helps us during the offseason when it comes to evaluating our needs.”
To provide clarity on that, Scott said he plans to play Bryant “a tad less” than the 29.3 minutes per game he has averaged thus far. But Scott and Kupchak reiterated plans for Bryant to play in as many games as possible in his 20th and final NBA season. Scott also plans on starting Russell, though it will not happen in Friday’s game against San Antonio.
Kupchak also described Russell as “light years ahead of where he was in Summer League.” During five Summer League games, Russell averaged 11.8 points on 37.7 percent shooting and had more turnovers (3.5) than assists (3.2). In his rookie season against obviously tougher competition, Russell has averaged 12.2 points on 41.5 percent shooting, 3.3 assists and 2.4 turnovers.
“As you get closer to the end of the season, it’s possibly less important to look at your veterans and more important to look at your younger players,” Kupchak said. “That would be the case with us.”