GM: Players have too much at stake
With the Lakers trailing the Dallas Mavericks by six games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the ultracompetitive Western Conference, injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry continuing to ravage the roster, and a brutal stretch of 10 of 11 games on the road just starting, is it time simply to forget about this season and start thinking about 2014-15?
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak doesn't think so.
"I know the coaches are never, ever going to give up, and no matter who is on the court, everybody has something invested in this team -- the players and the staff," Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview Wednesday. "The players, this is their legacy. Some of them are going for contracts. Some of them are defined by win-loss records. And I would expect them to play hard, as hard as they can possibly play, no matter what our record is."
The Lakers' recent downturn coincided with Pau Gasol's name being linked to a potential trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum. The Cavs ended up sending Bynum and future draft picks to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng on Monday.
"The events of the last 10 days created a lot of unnecessary distraction and minutia for our players and coaches," Kupchak said. "I understand that it might be something interesting for the fans because they kind of follow things from day to day, but we don't like to do business that way."
Will Gasol still be a Laker when the trade deadline passes Feb. 20?
"I'm always looking for ways up until the trade deadline to do what's best for the team for that year or what's best for the team going forward," Kupchak said. "That obviously depends on the team you have and what the record is. Some years you're looking to forge up an area that you may have a weakness on a championship roster and then some years it may be different where you're looking a little bit beyond that year towards the next year. So, that's kind of where we are right now."
That's hardly an assurance that the four-time All-Star from Spain will close out the season with the team he helped to back-to-back championships in 2009 and '10, but Kupchak did endorse Gasol's play as of late.
"I think he's played some of his best basketball in the last two weeks, and I know that sinus thing set him back probably 10 days," Kupchak said of Gasol, who was averaging 22 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.0 blocks in his last four games entering Wednesday. "I'm sure going through the rumor mill is not fun. It looked to me like he fought through it, and I think his best basketball is yet to come."
Kupchak expressed similar faith in the Lakers as a whole, despite their recent struggles.
"I can't say that there's been a game that we gave up and didn't play hard," Kupchak said. "For obvious reasons -- travel, etc. -- some days you have more energy than others, but our locker room is a good locker room and by and large, they're diving for loose balls and they're trying. Sometimes the mental part kicks in and you think you're trying, but maybe you're not because you're tired or you've had back-to-backs or you're traveling or you're reading about yourself in the paper -- and I'm not talking about Pau, I'm just talking in general.
I don't know where it's going to end up. I know our January schedule is not an easy schedule and I know we're beat up, but the important message to the coaches and the players is to just give your best every game and we'll let the chips fall as they may.” -- Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak
"Trade talk in general is not good for anybody, even if it's not your name. But I haven't sensed that players have thrown in the towel, and they won't. They have too much at stake."
Indeed, 10 of the 14 players on the Lakers roster do not have a contract for next season. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni echoed Kupchak's claim that the team still cares.
"We still got fight," D'Antoni said before the Rockets game. "I think sometimes it's misplaced or sometimes the situation gets a little heavy for them, but the locker room is good and they want to do it. They're watching film, they're trying to get better. As long as they do that, we have a chance to turn it around."
Kupchak shouldered some of the responsibility for L.A.'s recent slump, admitting he might have mismanaged the roster.
"We didn't play well [recently], and that could be on me," Kupchak said. "I thought we had plenty of help in the backcourt going into this season. Obviously we don't."
Kupchak said the injuries to Bryant, Nash, Farmar, Blake and Henry prompted the team to waive forward Shawne Williams on Tuesday before his salary became guaranteed.
"As somebody who is responsible for payroll and the roster, God forbid we lose another player in the backcourt," Kupchak said. "Knock on wood, I'm knocking on my desk as we speak, if we lose Kendall Marshall, now I got to go out and find another ballhandling guard. And if we let the [Jan. 7] deadline pass, now we have to cut a guy on a guaranteed deal to bring another guy on board. I'm not doing my job then. Right now we have five [healthy] players in the frontcourt. With Shawne, we had six. We have players there. I'm most concerned about an injury in our backcourt with 40-something-plus games to go."
That's 40-something games to try to right the ship or miss the playoffs for just the third time since the 1975-76 season.
"I don't know where it's going to end up," Kupchak said. "I know our January schedule is not an easy schedule and I know we're beat up, but the important message to the coaches and the players is to just give your best every game and we'll let the chips fall as they may.
"I'm going to do my job, whatever that is, I'll take a lot into consideration. Jim [Buss, the Lakers vice president of player personnel] and I talk on a daily basis and we'll just evaluate – not after every game, we'll go through segments – and maybe we look to do something, maybe we don't. But I just expect our players, and they will, to play hard and to compete and they'll be fun to watch if they do that."