Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak reiterated thoughts recently expressed to the Los Angeles Times by executive vice president Jim Buss, which is that the Lakers can remain a competitive team even without significant changes to the roster.
Two seasons removed from back-to-back championships, the Lakers have made consecutive second-round playoff exits, and lost key members like Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom. But there were also unique circumstances adding up to what was ultimately a turbulent 2012 season, and Kupchak said he feels improvement may come simply through familiarity and normalcy.
“I think that’s completely realistic,” Kupchak said Thursday afternoon while talking with John Ireland and A.Martinez on 710 ESPN. “You might say, ‘Well, everyone else in the league had a shortened training camp as well.’ And that’s true. But we did have a completely new staff and our season didn’t start out real smooth for obvious reasons. And then in midseason, which ended up being March, later than ever before, we ending up making two trades (for Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill).
“So we had a lot that went on this season in addition to a new staff, and I’m not sure all the other teams in the league had that.”
That optimistic view is key, because as Kupchak acknowledged, the Lakers have very limited means to improve the roster. For example, Buss also predicted the team’s core -- generally defined as Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum -- would likely remain intact. While specifically declining to identify any Laker as a “core” player, Kupchak seconded the low odds of dramatic roster changes, if for no other reasons than that blockbuster deals are few and far between in the NBA.
“I would say it’s unlikely we would do something very major,” conceded Kupchak. “Something major would only involve a select few players on our team. That’s what this time of the year is for. We canvass the league. We try to get a feel for other teams and how they value our players and we do the same thing with other teams. Sometimes the conversation leads to a more serious conversation. You don’t see too many major deals in this league taking place. ...
"So just statistically, it’s not likely. But once again, without beating a dead horse, that’s what we try to do this time of year, and we’ll see where it ends up in 3-4 weeks.”
In the meantime, having traded both of their 2012 first-round picks in the deals for Sessions and Hill, the Lakers are now left with the 60th pick, last in the entire draft. It’s a station Kupchak admitted isn’t likely to yield a future star, and while the team will continue to explore ways to move up in the draft, that can’t be counted on.
“We’ve been lucky that Kobe was selected years ago in the first round, and of course, with Andrew (Bynum), so we have some pieces to build around,” said Kupchak. “But as of late, with the Gasol trade, and then we got Metta (World Peace) through free agency, we’ve kind of had to build that way, and I don’t think that’s going to change within the next week or so, although we’ll continue to look at possibilities.”
But free agency, which officially begins July 1, also presents few options. The Lakers are well over the salary cap and have just a mini-mid-level exception and the veteran’s minimum available for offers. Thus, higher profile free agents, unless willing to take a pay cut, are likely beyond their price range.
“I’d very surprised if we’re going to be very active,” Kupchak said, “Only because of the limitations on this franchise resulting from the collective bargaining agreement. ... You might not be able to really go out there and dramatically improve your team with a $1 million player or a $3 million player. But there’s value out there and we’ll search for it.”
Even the trade exception gained through the 2011 Odom trade, which allows the cap-strapped Lakers to acquire a player making $8.9 million or less without sending out another in return, doesn’t limited choices. As Kupchak said, opponents rarely just hand over a quality player for nothing.
“Wouldn’t that be nice if a team gave us a player making $9 million or less to improve our team?” Kupchak said. “Obviously, the chances of that are not good. We’d probably have to move something back in the other direction just as good to make the other team happy. However, there are occurrences where teams look to get rid of a player that maybe doesn’t fit in or sometimes the trade exception can be used to make a more complicated trade. So it’s valuable to have, but it’s not like you can go out and sign a player making $9 million.”
And even the benefits of a full training camp and a second season under head coach Mike Brown may not be everything because, as Kupchak pointed out, the other 29 teams won’t be idly sitting around.
“I think we would be better, but other teams are gonna get better, too,” Kupchak said. “That’s what they do this time of year. But I don’t think there’s any doubt if we could bring in the right pieces that we would be in the hunt again. But we try to win and sometimes the hunt is not enough.”