Training Camp Wrap with Mitch Kupchak
We sat down with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to discuss where the roster stands heading into the regular season, talk about how the new CBA impacts the D-League, collect his thoughts on OKC's dealing James Harden, get his early take on Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in purple and gold and more.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: How did you come to the decision to keep 15 players on the roster, at least for now?
Kupchak: In conjunction with our coach (Mike Brown) and (Executive VP of Player Personnel) Jim Buss, we hashed it out. There is a strategic approach to what you do involving (positions and salary), and amongst the three of us this is where we ended up. I wouldn't think Robert Sacre (being on the roster) is a surprise to anybody; he certainly showed that he deserved an extended look. On the other hand, he's gotten more of an opportunity than anyone else because of the injury to Dwight (Howard), and if you talked to some guys that have been here, they'd say they wish they'd had that opportunity. With that said, they've been here almost 28 days, and we feel like we know them pretty good. We're not always right, and we had to make decisions, and by and large the decisions have to be done at the end of camp.
MT: With luxury tax implications I know it can be difficult to keep a full 15 players on the roster, with Darius Johnson-Odom grabbing the last spot?
Kupchak: As a later second round draft pick like Johnson-Odom, that's the lowest number that you can be paid of anybody in the NBA. When you look at our payroll, which is approaching $100 million, as a percentage of payroll it's really not that much. On the other hand, I don't expect ownership to expand payroll, and these contracts do have some flexibility to them in the fact that they are not guaranteed. (Sacre and Johnson-Odom) are going to have to continue to perform at a high level, but for the time being, it gives us some roster flexibility going forward.
MT: How did the new CBA impact what you can do with players being sent to your D-League affiliate, the D-Fenders?
Kupchak: I'd hope with the D-League coming up soon we'd be able to put one or both of our second round picks in that situation. You used to be limited to sending a player down three times, but they can go an unlimited number of times now. You could have them practice with the Lakers every day and then still have them play in every D-Fenders game. We intend to take advantage of the new rule with one or both of those players. It's a good development for us, and you're starting to see some more synergy with the D-League and the NBA.
MT: How does the team you see entering the season compare with what you thought you might see during the offseason?
Kupchak: I thought I'd be watching Kobe practice*, but other than that, we feel no differently from how we felt over the summer. We have given ourselves a better chance to win the title. There is no reason we should fail for talent reasons. But having said all that, you have to stay healthy. As I just said, Kobe isn't on the floor right now. And in the playoffs you have to get lucky now and then, with a call or a bounce. But the talent is there, and I think they're going to get along and play well together. The group has good chemistry and the pieces fit better than some other teams with a lot of talent. Players are at the right age where they see things young players don't see. So all that bodes well, but the bottom line in this league is staying healthy and getting lucky at the right time.
*Bryant missed practice while rehabilitating from a foot strain suffered on Sun., Oct. 21 against Sacramento, and is considered a game-time decision to play in the season opener on Tuesday.
MT: I know there's only so much you can say about what another team does in a trade, but what's your impression of Oklahoma City trading James Harden?
Kupchak: On the surface, the Thunder had a team that was very successful as a group, as a unit. There's a piece of that group that's moving on, so you might take something from that. At the same time, I think by adding Kevin Martin they have a piece that they can use, that's going to get minutes, and he can certainly score. They picked up a lot of (draft picks), plus a kid in (Jeremy Lamb) we all liked in college. So you can argue that this year there may be a ding to their chemistry because they'd been together for three years, but Martin could fit right in and Lamb could have a (positive) impact.
MT: What are your impressions of Dwight Howard from training camp, and how is he fitting in from a personality standpoint?
Kupchak: He's exceeded my expectations. I didn't think he'd practice and participate nearly as much. He's much further ahead than what I anticipated. Here (in L.A.), Dwight doesn't have to shoulder the full responsibility. Kobe is more than willing to shoulder it, but as you get older, it gets harder to do, and it's not particularly something you want to do. It makes your life harder. So bringing in guys like Dwight and Steve make the game easier for Kobe; he doesn't have to shoulder as much as he has in the past. That goes the same for Steve and for Dwight. If they lost three in a row in Orlando and that locker room opened in Orlando, you knew where the press was going to go. Now if we lose three in a row here, I'm not sure where they're going. Some to Kobe, some to Steve, some to Dwight, some to Pau (Gasol). It's just going to be easier for all those guys to not get caught up so much in the stuff off the court. They're all going to share in the responsibility.
MT: What stands out about Steve Nash?
Kupchak: Steve is exactly what I thought he'd be: a consummate professional; very, very competitive; and a captain out there. He's really a ringleader when it comes to taking control, and I'm a little disappointed we haven't been able to play them all as a group just yet. But they are really fun to watch with him (running the show). Steve's ability to pass with either hand and read the defense is outstanding, and we know teams can't leave him open. And if you're his teammate and you run your cut hard, you know you're going to get the ball.
MT: How much can Nash's attitude and personality impact the locker room, which featured the same top-end players for the past several years?
Kupchak: Sometimes change is good, even if the pieces are very similar. Sometimes change just makes a difference. People react differently to change. To add another guy like Kobe and Pau that believes in himself, such as Steve, can be very valuable. I don't know him well enough to know how Steve responds to three straight losses – which is when a player's mettle is really tested – but I'm going to guess he hunkers down more and more and has a positive influence on the team in face of that kind of adversity. He's only been here for a month, but everything I've heard leads me to believe he's going to have a continually positive impact. On the bus, pre game, post game, practice … young guys will look to him. As an example, I heard (from our staff) that of all our players, Steve has been in the weight room 26 times since camp started, which is more than anybody. He's constantly working, and also taking care of his diet. Generally, it was the biggest surprise of the summer that we were able to get a guy like that.
MT: How tricky is it to put in the Princeton Offense to compliment some of what Mike Brown had installed last season?
Kupchak: That falls under the coaching umbrella, but I do visit with our coaches, and certainly watch closely. Like the triangle, when you have a system offense, it does take time to put in. It's not like a pro set that lasts seven seconds to get someone a shot. It's a lot of continual motion. Although in theory it's like the triangle, it's completely different to put in, so it's going to take some time.
MT: Finally, do you have any quick hitters of things that stood out in training camp?
Kupchak: I think you saw some flashes of good play from Jodie Meeks, both with his shooting and the other things he can do like get to the bucket to draw fouls and play defense. I think Devin Ebanks had a good preseason and continues to develop. Sacre has been a pleasant surprise. And with Antawn Jamison, I've seen no decline in his athleticism, which you wonder about when you get older guys.