After spending the days and weeks leading up to the NBA draft trying to move into the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers were unable to do so Thursday night. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak took it in stride.
“To get into the first round, it’s not that easy to do without pledging substantial assets, so to some degree, it was a challenge to look for something that would be fair to do," said Kupchak, who had gone knocking on teams' doors equipped to hand over Pau Gasol wrapped in a bow in exchange for a top pick. "But for the last week or two, we think we’ve covered and canvased the league and got a feel for what the opportunities were there for us to move into the first round. ... So this is really the beginning phase of when teams look to improve their team.”
The beginning phase will be followed in short order by two more days of pursuing trades until free agency officially begins Saturday evening at 9:01 p.m. PT. The Lakers have many decisions to make about whether to retain unrestricted free agents Ramon Sessions, Matt Barnes, Troy Murphy and Jordan Hill as well as restricted free agents Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris (should they extend a qualifying offer by Saturday) and Andrew Goudelock. There's also the issue of starting negotiations on a longterm contract extension with Andrew Bynum which figures to be in the four-years/max money range.
And that's just on their own team. The Lakers also have the mini mid-level exception to offer to a player from another team, worth about $3 million in its first year, and will also look to add players at the veteran minimum contract rate.
Before any of that happens, Kupchak will shift his focus to re-signing Sessions on Saturday night.
“I won’t be there, but I’ll be on the phone," Kupchak said. "That’s important. Normally, nothing is determined [the first night of free agency], but it’s a sign that you have some interest. And I think the player is sitting at home, awake, and he’s hoping for a call from the agent, and saying, ‘Who called me tonight?' So that’s important.”
Kupchak told reporters that the draft signified the beginning of a process of trying to improve leading up to training camp in the fall to open the 2012-13 season.
"It’s an exciting time and a busy time for us," Kupchak said. "I know we have great fan interest, that are watching closely, so hopefully we can do something good. So we always try to hit a home run."
To continue the analogy, Kupchak made it clear that teams do not blindly swing for the fences anymore however because of the restrictions of the new collective bargaining agreement.
"It’s an adjustment period for the league and I think people realize that drafting, cap management, use of your cap space going forward is probably real, real important," Kupchak said.
If the rest of the offseason goes as quietly as draft night did, with no major core-shaking moves to reshape the team, Kupchak says he believes the Lakers can still be title contenders.
"I think if this group is kept intact -- we got some work to do with existing free agents and the free-agent market in general -- I don’t see why we couldn’t be in the hunt next year," Kupchak said. "We may be nipping at the heels of a couple of teams in the West, but we know that the team in the NBA that had the best record this year didn’t advance to the Finals."
BREAKFAST WITH KOBE
Kupchak also looked back briefly, before looking forward, telling reporters about the exit interview he had with Kobe Bryant more than a week after Bryant's teammates did. Kupchak and Bryant met at a restaurant in Orange County on a weekend morning.
"We had, I felt, a relaxing breakfast," Kupchak said. "There was no agenda. It was really just to sit down and reacquaint. Talk a little bit of basketball -- What are you doing this summer? How are things going? How do you feel? Kind of worked into the season a little bit -- What do you think about this past season? What are your feelings going forward? Very positive … I would say it was a positive meeting. He’s been around the league a long time. There aren’t too many postseason interviews that he hasn’t dealt with. It’s been the agony of going out in the first round and then the joy of winning a seven-game series. So he’s kind of used to the ups and downs of exit interviews. It’s not going to be something that’s abnormal at this stage of his career."
Bryant, who turns 34 this summer, has two years and $58.3 million remaining on his contract with the Lakers. Kupchak was asked if the team has thought about what it will be like without No. 24 on the roster.
"I don’t know how you plan for that," Kupchak said. "We don’t look forward to the day he’s not around. But I don’t know how you plan for that."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.