For the NBA exec who guides a squad of two-time defending champions fresh off lost three straight losses punctuated by an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the NBA's worst team a mere eight days before the trade deadline, even the most special of occasions become work events.
So it's no surprise Mitch Kupchak was stopped by the assembled media in the plaza outside Staples Center following the dedication of Jerry West's statue Thursday night. Needless to say, the atmosphere locally regarding the Lakers is a little too tense to let him escape with just a few nice words about his former boss. That Kupchak, who would make a spectacular spy given how difficult it is to extract information from him, doesn't drop any bombshells isn't surprising. There were, however, a few interesting nuggets to be mined.
What follows is the exchange in its entirety, followed by appropriately pithy commentary. With a little extra pith, even, given the circumstances.
Q: Now that the All-Star break is here, what's your feel [on this team] looking forward?
Mitch Kupchak: "There's a tendency to overreact, and I [understand why it happens]. This team is not that different than the team we had last year. I think in some ways it's been improved. So we know they're good enough. Overnight, we didn't have guys lose the ability produce and play. The road trip started out so promising, even with two losses if we could have won the last game we would have came back 5-2, and people probably would have said it was a decent trip. But we stumbled against Cleveland, and you know something, a lot of times maybe it's the way it's supposed to be.
We have five games to think about that game, and think about how that trip ended and maybe it turns out to be a rallying point. We don't know. We'll have to wait and see how the season unfolds."
Q: So we shouldn't expect any new players come the trade deadline?
MK: "I think it's unlikely, but there are eight days to go and all the general managers are here in Los Angeles. There will be a lot of yakking, there will be a lot of guys moving off to the side, there will be a lot of phone calls. You make phone calls, and you take phone calls. That's what we do. So I stand by what I said: I think it's unlikely, but I don't think any GM would stand here and say there will be absolutely be no changes in eight days, and particularly at this time of year."
Q: If you made a deal, would it be designed for this year, or something down the road? Future security?
MK: "Dr. Buss wants to win now. I don't think that's an open question. It's my job to look to the future a little bit, but I happen to also know that we have a coach that wants to win now, too. So I don't think that's going to change."
Q: Does this team need an infusion of energy? To get younger?
MK: "The younger the player, the more inexperienced the player, and you'll probably end up with players who make more mistakes and maybe won't help you when the playoffs begin. It's a fine line between an experienced veteran and perhaps a veteran that's too old, or a young, inexperienced player that doesn't have enough experience. So to add younger, quicker, faster players may not make you a better team."
Q: What are you seeing on and off the floor from Ron Artest? On the floor, off the floor?
MK: "I really don't want to address one player. The danger in doing that is if nobody asks you about another player, than that's the only player that was mentioned. Basically, you can go through every starter in the last five or six games, and perhaps the top rotation of eight players, and say you're disappointed in the way they're playing. And I don't think they'd disagree, so that's how I'll answer the question."
Q: Was [Wednesday's loss to Cleveland] unacceptable by Lakers standards? More so than other games?
MK: "Let's see where it leads. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb up. I certainly am not going to stand here and say, yeah we beat them by 50 and you know they were ready for us, it was a home game, and it's not that unusual to get beat. I could stand here and say that, but we should have won the game. Let's see where it leads."
Q: So that game constitutes rock bottom?
MK: "To date."
While I don't think anyone would disagree, the "To date" thing is still a little ominous. Like in 'City Slickers' when Billy Crystal's Mitch Robbins rides along side Curly (Jack Palance), and asks if he's killed anyone today.
"The day ain't over yet," he replies.
Touche. Given the Lakers don't play the Cavs anymore this season, I shudder to think what might be rock bottom-er (at least before the playoffs), but that's a discussion for another day.
Kupchak's declaration the team is "unlikely" to make a deal, one he took the time to reinforce, is obviously of interest, but I also found meaningful his answer about whether a trade would be made for the now, or to satisfy future needs. There is widespread belief a deal on the scale of Andrew Bynum for Carmelo Anthony, even if it strengthens the Lakers down the road, weakens them this season. It would leave the Lakers dangerously short on frontcourt depth- only Derrick Caracter and a still hobbled Theo Ratliff would back up Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, and Ron Artest would likely be forced to play undersized at the four- and with only 25 games remaining continuity becomes a huge question.
Could the Lakers, currently constructed on both sides of the floor around three highly skilled seven-footers adapt fast enough to gel before the postseason? I certainly don't think so. The principle holds in any blockbuster-level deal (which would, almost by definition, have to include Bynum). If "win now" is the goal, any trade the Lakers make will almost certainly be something around the margins.
Think bench depth, or something able to be had with the $5.5 mil or so available from the trade exception gained in the Sasha Vujacic deal.
Kupchak's reaction to the Cleveland debacle, particularly in referring to it as "rock bottom" and noting it could be a rallying point, reads to me like an angry father sending his kids to their room after supreme misbehavior to think about what they've done. In his own way, it's stern criticism, and certainly appropriate.
Finally, Kupchak is spot on in his response to the question about needing to get younger. The Lakers don't need to be younger, they need to be better. There are plenty of young, quick, athletic players that aren't all that good. There are older players who could help them. (Frankly, if they could find a septuagenarian who can knock down jumpers and hold his own defensively, I say sign him.) I'm not opposed to adding athleticism and quickness to the roster, but it's hardly a cure-all. Shannon Brown is a freakish athlete, and among the youngest players on the team. He's also not playing very well.
In the end, it seems highly likely the Lakers you see heading into the break will be the group heading out, and finishing the season. They'll stick with what they have, get Matt Barnes back, and hope the team returns championship form. Honestly, it's as good a strategy as any.
It just means another 25 games of nail-biting (and the full gnawing of fingers once the postseason starts), but wouldn't that happen anyway?