GM: Lakers will contend with Kobe
WASHINGTON -- Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday that not only will Kobe Bryant retire as a Laker, he'll also close out his career playing for championship-contending teams.
A day earlier, Bryant signed a two-year contract extension through 2015-16 worth $48.5 million.
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Even with so much money committed to Bryant -- his $23.5 million salary accounts for more than a third of the expected $62.9 million salary cap next season -- Kupchak believes the Lakers can fill in enough pieces around him to compete for another Larry O'Brien Trophy. And what a title that would be -- Bryant's sixth, to tie his idol Michael Jordan, and the team's 17th, to tie the rival Boston Celtics.
"I think we do," Kupchak said on a conference call with a small group of reporters. "I think we do. The challenges are there. The collective bargaining agreement doesn't make it any easier for anybody. It's restrictive and challenging, but yes, I do believe we can."
Asked about the coveted cap space the Lakers have strategically secured for a free-agent spending spree next summer, Kupchak said Bryant took a deal with that in mind.
"Obviously, he took a pay cut," Kupchak said of Bryant, who will be paid $30.5 million this season and was eligible to be offered up to $32 million next season under the terms of the new CBA. "A substantial pay cut. A lot of people look at it and say, 'Well, that's not a huge financial pay cut,' but it was a negotiation that we felt like was pretty quickly accomplished and fair on both sides. We're comfortable."
Kupchak said the team accomplished its two goals: taking care of Bryant while also keeping open its options to improve elsewhere through trades or free agency.
"We could compensate Kobe in the manner that we felt he deserved and at the same time be able to have that flexibility," Kupchak said. "Substantial flexibility. We don't have a minimum amount of flexibility. We have a lot of flexibility. Then you have to weigh it against, 'OK, what do you think is going to happen this summer?'
"So, everybody forgets that Kobe would be a free agent this summer, too. So we got who we feel is one of the top free agents available this summer, and we still have the ability to pursue other free agents or other opportunities between now and the trade deadline or this summer or the next summer based on our flexibility."
Kupchak and the Lakers are banking on someone who's been a star and a revenue generator for the franchise for the past 17 years. Despite his Achilles injury, the team views Bryant as more of a known commodity than holding out hope for LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony to opt out of their contracts next summer and come to L.A. And the Lakers are aware of how fickle the free-agent market can be, especially with Dwight Howard leaving them for the Houston Rockets in July.
"The uncertainty of the summer is behind us now," Kupchak said. "We know we have Kobe in the fold for this year and two more years, and the negotiation went pretty smoothly."
While Bryant has been on the court for only a handful of team practices during his comeback attempt, Kupchak said he has already seen enough to believe Bryant will return at a high level.
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"You guys don't have the sense that we do because I'm in the building every day watching," Kupchak said. "He has not played in an NBA game. We don't have that sense. We have [anecdotal evidence of] historically what players have done with this injury. We've consulted with the physicians, the doctors in terms of reinjury and stuff like that. The bottom line is that everybody expects him to get back on the court and to have a complete recovery. I don't think anybody does not expect that.
"The gray area, obviously, is at 35 years old, how is his game going to change? We think it is going to change a little bit. He's acknowledged that it will. But I don't think that there's any doubt that he'll play in this league at a high level. I don't know if that means points or exactly what it means. That was our comfort level."
Bryant, who enjoyed a renaissance season last year with averages of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and finishing fifth in MVP voting, still has some steps to complete before making his 2013-14 season debut, according to Kupchak.
"I don't think he's contemplating, nor do I think he's ready to play right now," Kupchak said. "I'm not saying that a week or two down the road he might not be, but I think even if he did play, there's a period where the game at that level ... is really quick and fast-moving, and you can't just sit out 7-8 months and hop back into a game."
After the team's shootaround Tuesday in advance of its game against the Washington Wizards, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said he does not "foresee" Bryant playing in any of the games on the three-game trip through Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit.
Whenever Bryant does play again, Kupchak said the 15-time All-Star and five-time champion will still undoubtedly be an impact player.
"I do expect him to have an influence on the game," the GM said. "He will be able to score, provide leadership and toughness to our team. Confidence. We've had some stretches where we've really played well, but I've seen some times where you could use somebody that's got great experience that maybe you could go to at certain times of a game, whether it's at the end of a period or end of a game.
"And then it's going to be a feeling-out process. But he will be back and he will play at a high level."