- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With just three days remaining until the official start to NBA free agency, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has one major thing on his mind: trying to convince Dwight Howard to re-sign.
"The word I've used is 'optimistic,'" Kupchak said Thursday night after emerging from the Lakers' war room following the NBA draft. "I think I'm optimistic. I understand that there's a possibility [Howard] won't [re-sign], and I probably don't have any more information than anybody in this room does. I'm aware of a lot of the stuff that's flying back and forth, a lot of the rumors, so there's a realistic possibility that he won't be back. But I'm optimistic that he will."
Kupchak was referring to a report by ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that there is "very little chance" the All-Star center will return to the Lakers. Regardless, Kupchak is undeterred and compared Howard's situation to what Kobe Bryant went through as a free agent in the summer of 2004. Bryant came awfully close to joining the Los Angeles Clippers and also considered the Chicago Bulls but ultimately decided to stay with the purple and gold.
"Very similar. Scary close," Kupchak said. "Kobe visited with teams -- more than one team, there were several. I remember we were on pins and needles. We'd just gotten beaten and Phil [Jackson] left for the first time and we traded Shaquille [O'Neal], and there was a lot of uncertainty about what Kobe would do, a lot of rumor. Very similar to what's going on right now. When the phone call [with Bryant's decision] came in, we really didn't know which way it was going to go."
What isn't similar is the team's approach to wooing Howard. There were no billboards put up around Hollywood asking Bryant to stay, like the team is doing for Howard.
"It's a sign of the future landscape," Kupchak said. "I think in the NBA with the new collective bargaining agreement, with the intent being to level the playing field as much as possible, I think you'll see the way teams recruit and try to procure talent to change. I think you have to be aggressive. You can't take chances that you're not doing enough, and from our point of view, we wanted to be as aggressive and as proactive as possible yet do it with what we feel was the right way without going overboard. The message is simple: We care about you, and we want you to stay. It's that simple."
If only getting a "yes" out of Howard would be so simple.
Kupchak said the Lakers have had constant contact with Howard since the season ended, so they will not blitz him Sunday night when free agency begins.
"I don't think anything dramatic is going to take place on June 30 at 9:01 [p.m. PT] regarding Dwight," Kupchak said. "My understanding is there are several other teams that have great interest and he's going to have a process that I understand to be pretty deliberate that he's going to go through, and we'll be involved in that process and we'll see how it plays out."
Howard has already received some backlash from Lakers fans who have taken a good-riddance attitude, but Kupchak said he believes that will change.
"I'm not worried about that," he said. "Kobe's been back for seven or eight years now. What did people think about him? There was a period where Kobe was earning his stripes in Los Angeles. I think when he came back, he had to continue. Here it is, seven, eight or nine years later, and I think that's what would happen with Dwight once he puts his roots down and says, 'This is the place I want to be.'
"I think that's part of the problem. I think the city feels they were renting him for a year. But the reality is he couldn't sign an extension. Financially, the rules provide that he wait until July 1 to get the best deal he could possibly get. It was one of those situations where please tell us you want to be here and please show us you want to be here. But he can't do it until July 1. I think that's part of it. Of course the way the season went didn't help things either."
The Lakers GM also dismissed the severity of the reports about Howard's frustration with coach Mike D'Antoni and the system he runs.
"At the end of a losing season, nobody is happy," Kupchak said. "It's as simple as that. If he was under contract, I don't think there would be any newsworthy story that would become of it. But because he's a free agent, there's going to be a lot of speculation and a lot of innuendo and rumor. But the bottom line is, the end of the season when you get bounced in the first round in Los Angeles, none of our players are happy. None of our coaches are happy. Nobody in this building is happy."
Nor is Kupchak happy with the stress that comes with the weight of Howard's decision.
"It's not the most fun time of year, to be honest with you," Kupchak said. "But there's a lot of anticipation, and your mind is racing. At some level, it's challenging. You have to try to figure it out and plan. We've been fortunate. Sometimes we plan and we get a phone call that's better than you ever could've planned. We've been lucky that things seem to work out. Once again, we think no matter what happens we'll be competitive next year. Our future is bright in terms of having flexibility."
The flexibility that would be provided in 2014-15 especially, and beyond, if Howard decides to walk is being looked at as a consolation prize by Kupchak. He declined to answer a question about the possibility of using Howard in a sign-and-trade deal if it came to that.
"Whether Dwight's here or if he's not, what we can do to improve the team remains the same," Kupchak said. "It's not like if one player's not here we have more resources and we have that money to use to sign another player. It doesn't work that way. So we have a Plan A. We have a Plan B. Plan A is always better than Plan B."
When will Kupchak know which plan he'll be implementing? A source close to the All-Star center told ESPNLosAngeles.com that Howard expects to be ready to choose his team as soon as the NBA's moratorium on new business is lifted July 10.
That information jibed with Kupchak's thinking.
"It's in everybody's best interest, I think, to proceed in a timely fashion," he said. "I don't think it's Dwight's goal to drag it out. Whether he's with us or with another team, everybody this time of year has business to take care of. If he's here, he wants us to know that so we can build around him in this period of free agency, when it moves very quickly, and if he's with somebody else, that team is going to want the same thing.
"If you're Dwight, you would want the same thing as well. You would want to give your team notice as quick as possible so they can make the changes that they need to make to make your team more effective. So I think it's in everybody's best interest to move as quick as possible."
In the wake of reports that Dwight Howard won't re-sign with the Lakers, general manager Mitch Kupchak says he remains optimisitic.