Lakers GM talks Kobe, D'Antoni

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With training camp set to open Saturday, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak gauged the team's excitement level as high.

As for expectations? He said those remain unknown, tied to the progress of a still-sidelined Kobe Bryant.

"No real expectations," Kupchak said Wednesday, addressing the media in advance of the start of camp. "I do believe that [Bryant will] get back and he'll play this season. You won't be able to look at him and say that he's hurt. In other words, some guys like myself when I hurt my knee, I always had a limp. You won't be able to tell [with Bryant]."

Kupchak wishes he could tell when Bryant, who turned 35 last month, will return to the court after undergoing surgery on a torn left Achilles in April.

"I don't have a timeline," Kupchak said. "I really don't."

The original recovery timeline the team provided following Bryant's procedure was six to nine months. Bryant, while speaking on a Nike promotional tour in China in August, said he "shattered" the "normal timetable for recovery."

Earlier this summer, Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss said he would "bet a lot of money" that Bryant would be back in time for the preseason. The Lakers' first preseason game is Oct. 5, against the Golden State Warriors in Ontario, Calif., one week after training camp begins.

Bryant, who is entering his 18th NBA season, has been working out on an altered-gravity treadmill at 75 percent of his body weight.

"You work your way up," Kupchak said. "When you get to 100 percent and you're there for a couple of days, then you transition to the court. He has not been on the court yet, but I'm not aware of any setback. When he gets to the court it's not like he's going to start practicing. There will be a lot of just movement, shooting maybe flat-footed. It's going to take some time."

The Lakers, meanwhile, are taking their time in opening up contract extension talks with Bryant until they can see what type of player he will be when he comes back. Bryant is in the final year of his current deal, which will pay him $30.45 million.

"There have been no contract extension talks," Kupchak said. "I would suspect that at some point this season we'll sit down. Whether it's Kobe and I or Kobe and his representative, Rob Pelinka, and talk about a road map for the future. But Kobe has made it clear that he intends to retire in a Laker uniform, and I know as an organization we feel the same way."

Kupchak said that waiting on the extension also benefits Bryant, who can use the time to determine how much he has left as a player.

"If you think for a second if Kobe can't play at a high level, or up to his expectations, that he wants to continue to play, I don't think that's in his DNA," Kupchak said. "So, I think it makes sense for him and for us to get him back on the court and to get a feel or a gauge of how much longer he wants to play and at what level."

If Bryant is still out when the team plays its first regular-season game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 29, the Lakers will face a couple of challenges. First, there will be the issue of who starts at shooting guard in his absence. Second, there will be the issue of how the coaching staff responds to Bryant's strong presence on the bench.

"With Kobe, you just try to manage who he is the best you can," Kupchak said. "Trust me, at 17 years, going on 18 years [in the league], you're not going to change who Kobe Bryant is right now. I know he's mellowed a little bit and he even, from time to time likes to talk to the media, but during a game he's tough to manage. He's got blinders on and his mind is racing and the juices are flowing and he's competitive and he's thinking about the score and being down by one or up by one. He's cut a little bit differently, so that's not going to change. I think the best that [coach] Mike [D'Antoni] can hope for is to get to know Kobe better and maybe figure out a way to manage it as best he can. I think that's Mike's best chance. No coach has been able to control Kobe, no coach we've had since 1996. And that's not going to change."

What Kupchak hopes will change is the public's perception of D'Antoni.

"We try to give him all the support we can," Kupchak said of his coach, who has been much maligned in L.A. since the Lakers hired him after considering Phil Jackson. "Mike may have at some point or time said, 'I don't know if that's what they're thinking,' but here it is, September, and he has to realize -- and I'm sure he does -- that we back him 100 percent. I do feel that with what took place last year, there probably was no other way to go through it. That's just the nature of the beast. When you have a coach who was so successful and you choose not to go down that road, that's just the way it is. I think if we give Mike a chance, which we're committed to do, and he has a training camp and players are healthy, then I think people in Los Angeles are going to be happy. I really do."

Lakers fans are notoriously unhappy when presented with anything less than a championship season, but Kupchak believes that the lowered expectations many have for the Lakers this season can be a good thing. He pointed to the roster full of players who want to play in D'Antoni's system as refreshing -- contrasting that to last season with Dwight Howard without having to mention his former center's name -- but allowed that it will be a process to build back into a contender.

"The rules as they've been created now in the new collective bargaining agreement, it's going to be tough to get players to move," Kupchak said, possibly referring to the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who can become free agents next season if they opt out of their current deals next summer, when the Lakers will have a lot of money available to spend in free agency. "So, I don't know what next offseason holds. Certainly we're going to be active, and if we can get what we want to get done, then great. If not, then we'll move to the next offseason and then we'll move to the next offseason. I know at some time we'll be able to put together a very competitive and attractive team here."

But that's the distant future. As for the season at hand, the Lakers enter training camp relatively healthy with the exception of Bryant.

Kupchak said Steve Nash has been back at 100 percent for nearly six weeks following hip and groin complications last season, but the team will not push him in camp, in order to save him for the season, and will help lighten his load with backup point guards Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake.

Kupchak also expects a bounce-back year for Pau Gasol, who missed 33 games because of a variety of injuries last season, and said the 33-year-old veteran should be an All-Star again if he stays healthy. The only other player in recovery, out of the 19 to 20 camp invitees Kupchak expects the team to have, is second-round draft pick Ryan Kelly, who is still hampered by foot issues and will be limited during training camp.

With so much yet to be seen from the new-look Lakers, Kupchak was confident in one prediction.

"When we're down by two or we're down by three, the Kobe that we know and love is going to take the last shot," Kupchak said. "I do know that. He may be limping and he may be dragging his leg, but he will take the last shot."