SANTA BARBARA — The optimism seemed as sunny as the climate out here. It always appears that way whenever a new NBA training camp begins.
But for the 2016-17 campaign, there marked a few things that left Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak in high spirits. He relished the potential team bonding the Lakers could form as they begin the first week of training camp at UC Santa Barbara. Kupchak also sounded intrigued how the team’s young core could develop under Luke Walton’s guidance and without Kobe Bryant looming in the shadow. Kupchak centered his evaluation for the upcoming season more on development instead of wins and losses.
An ominous cloud looms over the Lakers, however. Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss said in 2014 he would step down if the Lakers do not become a Western Conference contender in three years. Lakers president Jeanie Buss has often said she would hold the front office accountable with unspecified changes if that does not happen.
All of which perpetuates uncertainty on if Kupchak’s focus on development could conflict with Jeanie Buss’ focus on results.
“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff.”
But how that translates into actual records? Kupchak only conceded he expected the Lakers to fare better than last season when they went 17-65, which marked the worst record in franchise history.
“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”
And it’s something Kupchak believes would represent an unfair reflection of any progress the Lakers make this season.
After all, the Lakers have a promising young core in D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr. Yet, their relative inexperience sparks questions marks on how quickly they will develop, some of which includes Russell’s leadership and Ingram adjusting to a more physical NBA. The Lakers have a promising young coach in Walton, who served as an assistant for the Golden State Warriors for the past two seasons. Yet, Walton inherits a roster that hardly matches the talent that the Warriors boast. The Lakers acquired some intriguing veteran, including a rim protector (Timofey Mozgov), a versatile forward (Luol Deng) and steady point guard (Jose Calderon). Yet, who knows how much any of those players can both produce and mentor as much as the Lakers hope they do.
“I want to see improvement in the young players,” Kupchak said. “I want to see some production from our rookies and I want our team to be fun to watch. I want them to have fun playing. I want them to get better as the season goes along. But I don’t know how that translates into anything else under my control.”
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