Talking With: Mitch Kupchak, Part I
We already provided a small taste of our interview last week with Mitch Kupchak, where he talked about the extended time Kwame Brown will miss due to a bum ankle, the C-Webb saga and the (seemingly remote) odds of any trade deadline action. Now comes a bigger forkful. In the sitdown's first part, we discuss everything from Andrew Bynum's progress to to the team's future to Lamar Odom's past struggles with inconsistency (with an optimistically decided emphasis on "past.") As the K Brothers follow the Lakers' lead in taking a few days off during the All-Star break (but continue chatting away, since comments WILL be updated), we leave you with Kupchak had to say.
Andrew Kamenetzky: With the news of Kwame Brown's delayed recovery, there's now more of an onus or pressure on Andrew Bynum in terms of what he needs to bring to the team. During his rookie season, there was a lot of talk about how the Lakers might not truly know what they have in Andrew for at least a couple years, that he might not be able to contribute before that. Is he progressing faster than anticipated?
Mitch Kupchak: Well, nobody expected him to start. And certainly if Kwame and Chris (Mihm) were here, we probably would not have started. I don't know what would have happened towards the end of the season, but because of some misfortune to Kwame and Chris, he's gotten thrust into the action. The initial results were really encouraging and then he kind of leveled off a little bit. And Kwame was coming back, so Phil (Jackson) had to make a decision. Andrew is still in the development stages of what it is to become an NBA player, or a great NBA player. And his body is continuing to change as well. He's never played this much. His last two years in high school, because of transferring and injury, he didn't play that much, so he was really learning on the run. And then Kwame went down again and to Andrew's credit, he saw the opportunity once more to really use what he learned here and try to hold onto that spot. He's made it clear that he likes starting and that's all fine and good, but in this league, it doesn't really matter what you say, it's what you do
Clearly, three years down the road, he's going to be a much better player than he is today. But even though he's starting and playing as a sophomore, that doesn't mean you can fast forward ahead and get there. You still have to get through three years of playing to get there. So he's ahead of the curve. He shows flashes of what we hope he can do on a consistent basis. We know he's bright. We know he's a center and he's great for the triangle offense because he gets to hold the ball, he gets to pass the ball. The ball kind of goes through him. All our players like him personally. He's a good kid. We're very pleased with his development, but you have to be careful never to say that he's great and there's no room for improvement. Players continually have to work to improve. That's one thing that Kobe always did. Every summer he would go into the gym and work on his game, even though it was clear from day one what he could be. And that's what Andrew has to continue to do.
MK: As I mentioned earlier, he really didn't have a high school career. Did not go to college. His only exposure to basketball over a prolonged, consistent period of time has been with the Lakers. He has to learn what it means to be an NBA player. You have to be careful with the accolades, that there aren't too many. I'm not talking about Andrew, but in general. You can't tell somebody that they're great, because they start to believe it and stop working. So you have to continue to challenge players. With young players like Andrew, you have to keep them on the edge of being angry at the coach. "Why did he say that about me?" But not get to the point where he's frustrated and doesn't enjoy playing.
AK: Phil's tended to temper any criticisms with a reminder that he's pleased with his progress and that he sees a lot of hard work with Andrew on the court. I seems like it's a lot of push and pull. I would imagine that as much as everyone is looking for Andrew to "learn," some of "learning" is literally being told, as opposed to figuring it out on your own.
MK: I think Phil does both. Phil sometimes will let players figure it out on their own. I think from time to time that might be frustrating for players. "Why don't you just sit down and tell me?" But if you've raised a family, if you've had kids of your own, you can't always sit them down. Sometimes they have to figure it out on their own. They have to remember back to something you said a month ago, because that's just how young people are. Sometimes Phil lets players figure it out on their own. Sometimes he'll sit down and be very demonstrative and specific about what you need to work on. And coaches use the media to get their message across from time to time. You can't just have a conversation with a player everyday and say the same thing over and over and over again. Sometimes you have to say it in the press to get someone's attention. And then all of a sudden, wow, you've got his attention now. That's all part of coaching. I don't think Andrew would be playing close to 40 minutes per game if this organization didn't think he had a really bright future and wasn't contributing to the team at this point and time.
BK: But you can see a difference with someone like Andrew and Jordan Farmar, who goes back farther as a gym rat, who's been around basketball more.
MK: Jordan went to college for two years. He had the benefit of a great coach (Ben Howland at UCLA), a defensive minded disciplinarian type of a coach. And he also had a great high school career as well, where there was no transferring or injuries involved, which Andrew did not have. But Jordan does not escape unscathed here, either. I can see inconsistency from game to game, just due to the competition, the length of the season. Jordan has to make adjustments in his game. He's going to have to continue to watch players. I'm very happy that both players were invited to play in the freshman and sophomore game. That's great. But once that's over, we need production in real games.
BK: And Jordan's also spent much more time playing against backups, where as Andrew's had more minutes against starting competition.
MK: That's right. But there's a difference in experience between the two players. Had Andrew had gone to college for two years with Coach Calhoun, you can just use your imagination. Two years at that level with a coach like Jim Calhoun. We would have never got him, but you can imagine if he came out after two years how much further along he'd be in terms of being able to play long seasons and drill work and stuff like that.
AK: Andrew's been talked about a lot as being groomed as the team's center of the future and he seems to have that bright road ahead of him. Kwame's also another young big who, at this point, seems much comfortable playing center than at the power forward spot I assume you pictured him playing when you traded for him. In terms of both of them being a part of the team's long term future, how much is there a concern that they may continue to play best at the same position?
MK: About two months ago, I had a conversation with Phil and I asked him if he could visualize Kwame and Andrew playing together. Now once again, I don't want to skirt over Chris Mihm, because his name deserves to be mentioned in this as well. But Phil said, without hesitating, "Yes. They could play together." Due to circumstances, we haven't even had the ability to try that. You can never have enough big players. You can never have enough young big players, so we'll just see how that plays out down the road. Hopefully, Kwame will come back and we'll have a chance to see some of that either at the end of this year or next year.
BK: Given how much Kwame could cost after next season when he's a free agent, and Chris, and inevitably, hopefully for you, having to extend Andrew, can you keep all those guys?
MK: The way the rules are set up, it's very difficult if you're over the cap to go out and pursue other team's free agents. But conversely, because of the rules, you're allowed to keep your own free agents at any expense. Now there is a thing called the luxury tax that comes into play, but we have paid a luxury tax in years past. I suppose it is a factor, but we've never lost a player that we wanted to keep and normally, the reasons decisions are made is because of basketball ability and can that player help the team win games and championships. Dr. Buss wants to win another championship. I know Phil does, too. I'm not as old as either one of those guys, but I'd like to win another one myself. So if we feel that keeping as many players as we want would help us, would be the right basketball thing and put the organization in a better chance to win a championship, I don't think that becomes an issue.
AK: Does it then become an issue of, are whatever players involved going to be happy with their roles, as opposed to a money issue?
MK: Well, if you're a free agent, that's what you have to factor in.
BK: The last time we talked, you spoke about the plan the organization had of building and progression. Are you guys where you thought you'd be? Ahead? Behind? And how does that effect how you view this group of players looking two or three years and whether or not this is a group you can work with?
MK: One of the benefits of being a general manager, you should have the ability to step back and look at the big picture. Coaches are day to day. They live and die by each game. And from time to time, I find myself doing the same thing. I get upset when we lose a game we shouldn't have lost. I can look back on our schedule at five or six games and I say, "We should have won those games." And our record should be at 34-15, as opposed to our present record (at the time, 30-20). I did the same thing last year. I do that, but I also catch myself, take a step back, and look at the season in terms of the way a general manager should look at a season. In other words, what's realistic with the talent you have, your financial flexibility, is the mix of players a good combination of old and young players? When I do that, I think that we're poised, going forward. To have a very competitive team that can challenge in the next four or five years, it could be next year, it could be three years from now, for an NBA title.
This year, there are four or five games that we should have won, but I also know we should have lost that game in Sacramento. We had a 20 point lead in the third quarter, but at the end of that game, we should have lost. I have to be reminded from time to time that there are games that you won that you shouldn't have won, so it kind of all equals out. I think, clearly, Phoenix and Dallas are the two best teams in the NBA right now and I think San Antonio is a close third. But I would not be deflated if we matched up against any one of those teams in the first round, although what we'd rather do is get home court positioning in the first round. Obviously, you need to be in the top four. I don't think we're at that level right now. Maybe, we get Kwame back, we get Luke (Walton) back and get healthy, then maybe we can challenge those guys, at least psychologically, a little bit better. And our record would indicate that. So that's kind of my take on the team.
BK: Does the fact that you're more competitive this season than some might have predicted make you think that this group, with the roster more or less held together, can grow another 15 wins over the next 2-3 years?
MK: It's hard to plan three or four years down the road. It's a little bit easier to plan for next year, although we project salaries and try to figure out what's going to happen three, four, five years down the road, it's tough to predict the future. And we also don't want to have Kobe and Lamar (Odom) to be in their thirties when this team is finally ready to win a championship again. That's not what this is all about. Kobe's 28 and he's our oldest player that plays a lot. He's young at 28, but this is also his 11th year in the NBA. Lamar is also very young at 26, but you don't want him to be 30 and Kobe to be 32. So we're not looking to get this team in position where they're the NBA favorites in four years. You just don't know what can happen. To much can happen. So we do want to win earlier than four years and that's our goal.
AK: Kobe's now entered his prime and Lamar is close. How do you offset giving them the most they can have around them with developing Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf? Striking that balance?
MK: Well, that's a GM's job. My job was made a little bit easier because Andrew got the playing time this year. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of Chris and Kwame. But that gives Andrew valuable experience. Maybe puts him a year ahead of where he could have been. Maybe even a little bit more than that. I didn't plan that. I didn't have anything to do with it. Jordan Farmar played a lot this year because Shammond Williams got hurt in training camp. Aaron McKie got hurt last year, so we really couldn't bank on him this year. We had no idea what he can do because we never saw him play last year. So in our minds, you had Smush Parker, he needed a backup and we felt that Shammond Williams could be a good backup player. But Shammond had a groin pull and Jordan played well in preseason and that's kind of how that worked out.
And then Luke stepped up this year. Nobody felt Luke would have the kind of year he's had this year, but he worked on his game during the offseason. Going into the season, we said (Vlad) Radmanovic is probably going to start and Luke's going to come off the bench. Well, Luke worked hard during the offseason, Radmanovic tore the ligament.
AK: So sometimes, even things that might be unfortunate on some level for the team itself can have a positive by-product.
MK: Yeah, I think a lot of GM's with their teams, they're very young and they do have conversations with ownership and coaches. "We have to play these guys. We have to develop them." That's not the mode here. With Kobe, this is not about trying to build a team where he can win four to five years from now. I don't think anybody would be that patient. So as a general manager, you have to get the right mix of veterans. And we rolled the dice when we traded Shaquille (O'Neal). We brought Lamar back. I think Lamar is worthy now. I think he's an aged veteran who is no longer considered an unknown quantity. I think, unfortunately, this would have been a break out year for him. He had a shot at the All-Star Game. But he's going to be what he is to us this year, I think, going forward.
AK: So some of the consistency issues that have surrounded Lamar in the past, you see them as something that's in his past?
MK: I think so. I think when you look at the Lakers and you're another team, you prepare for Kobe and Lamar.
AK: In dealing with the tragedy of Lamar's infant son dying during the offseason, how did you as an organization go about looking after him both professionally and personally, but also giving him his space. And did you have to change the way you evaluated his performance, since it might be hard to tell whether any problems were due to personal reasons or just a continuation of the inconsistencies he's dealt with before?
MK: All you can do is support him. It was a tragedy that nobody wishes on any family to go through. But he did recognize that he has to get through it. So we stayed in touch with Lamar. I did. Phil did. Dr. Buss did. I stayed in touch with his representative on a weekly basis. We encouraged him to spend time with his family, but we wanted him back in L.A. as soon as possible so he could get back in the gym. You don't play as much in the offseason anyway, but we also knew he wasn't playing much, if at all this offseason. But we understand that, so you just kind of have to balance it, as you mentioned earlier, and at the same time, give the guy some space. But he came in with a different mindset and I think basketball is something that he can use to replace or maybe take his mind off what happened in the last year. It'll take some time, but he was on to having his best season. And since he's come back, I don't think he's missed a step. He doesn't look like he was out for seven weeks. The timing was off a little bit. He had a game (against Atlanta) where he didn't shoot the ball well, but he also had 18 rebounds.
AK: Is it doubly encouraging on some level that Lamar has arguably managed to find consistency, perhaps for the first time in his career, in the face of such a tragedy? Not that you'd want that kind of circumstance to be used as a measuring point, but on some level, if he can thrive in this situation, maybe Lamar has truly arrived.
MK: I'm not sure about the question, but you kind of know with the right support that people get through tragedies. Being an NBA player puts you more in the spotlight, but in a lot of ways, it does make it easier, because of your lifestyle. You never forget. That never happens, no matter if you're working for the city, or as a school teacher or an NBA player, you never forget. But we figured with the right support system, most people get through it. He has a good support group with his family, his wife and his representatives. And we'd like to think that we've supported him as much as possible, too.
BK: We've both written that a high performing Lamar is the team's x-factor in whether the team can go one round into the playoffs, two rounds, the Western Conference finals. Do you see it that way?
MK: Yeah, we thought he was there and then he went down with the injury. But two guys like Kobe and Lamar could create opportunities offensively and defensively that other teams just can't deal with. Look at all the great teams in the league. They've all got two guys who can do that. At least. Based on the first third of the season, he was there. He had made that quantum leap.
BK: Because when you go into the playoffs, everyone knows what Kobe's going to give you. You know that. It's a given. But maybe you're not as sure about Lamar.
MK: You never know, okay. You've seen Kobe now play in the finals four times. And Lamar's never been in the Finals. I look at (which Lakers have played a final). Luke. (Brian) Cook. McKie. So (Odom's performance level) remains to be seen. but I know if I'm a coach in the other locker room and you're looking at the Lakers, there's two names on the board right away. And it's not just offense, either. Lamar, defensively, from a rebounding point of view. You have to really prepare and talk about those two guys.