Lakers GM: Hopes pinned on health

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Friday that Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are healthier than they've been in years and that the goals for the team this season are loftier than simply making the playoffs.

"Our expectations are to win a championship," Kupchak said. "The expectations outside of this room might not be the same.

"I think everybody is healthy right now. I've watched Kobe throughout the summer. I've gone to watch him work out down in Orange County and he's been up here several times and he looks really good. He said he feels great. No ill effects on either injury. Steve Nash said he feels the best he's felt in a long time. He's been working out and playing every day here in the facility."

The Lakers finished last season at 27-55, the team's worst record since moving to Los Angeles in 1960. There were myriad reasons for the poor season but paramount among them was the absence of Bryant, who played in only six games while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and then suffered a fracture in his left knee when he returned. Nash played in only 15 games due to nerve root irritation in his left leg.

Kupchak said his high expectations for the Lakers are largely based on Bryant, Nash and Carlos Boozer, whom the Lakers claimed off amnesty waivers from the Chicago Bulls in July, staying healthy this season.

"I think a big degree of our success will be if those three guys can stay healthy," Kupchak said. "For me, a lot of our success this year is going to rely on Steve and Kobe and Carlos. We have three proven veterans. We have other veterans. Jeremy [Lin] is a veteran. Jordan Hill is a veteran. Those are our three most accomplished veterans. They will have to stay healthy and play their best for us to be the best team we can be."

Lakers coach Byron Scott has talked about restricting Bryant's and Nash's minutes at times this season, especially during back-to-back games, and Kupchak said such decisions would be entirely up to Scott.

"I think there will be management of players' minutes whether it's based on age or injury," Kupchak said. "I'm not sure what that's going to be. That's going to be up to Byron. We may discuss it during training camp but really it's going to be up to Byron. I do know Kobe wants to play, I do know Steve wants to play, so that will be a challenge in itself. If there is some mandate to restrict minutes or games, hopefully the players will understand and will work with Byron on it."

The Lakers went into the offseason with cap space to go after the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony but settled on Boozer and Lin. Kupchak admitted he never really thought the Lakers had a chance to sign either, but Anthony, who visited Los Angeles, strongly considered signing with the Lakers before re-signing with the New York Knicks.

"To be honest, our expectations with either player, just based on what we perceive the environment to be with the new collective bargaining agreement, we never felt it was realistic to think we would get one or two," Kupchak said. "But if you don't try, you don't know. We went all-out to pursue both of the people you're talking about. I think we came close. I really do. But it doesn't really matter that you come close."

Despite failing to sign a big-name free agent this offseason, Kupchak believes it is only a matter of time before the Lakers will be able to attract their next franchise player, whether it be through a trade or free agency.

"I believe we have a lot to offer," Kupchak said. "We still have to deal with the rules as they are today regarding max players. Four years versus five years and you get the jump a little bit less each year. So monetarily there will always be a disadvantage. But we think the franchise, the city, our fan base and the exposure here, we have a lot to offer. We'll get somebody. At some point in time we will."

The success of the Lakers this season, however, will hinge on Bryant's return, and Kupchak thinks he is still capable of being a player who can score 30 or 35 points if needed and be the centerpiece of a contending team.

"I think he's going to have an excellent year," Kupchak said. "Once again, he's going to have to stay healthy. He's been working every day. I get reports. I've seen him personally. I know he's working and speaking with Byron on a daily or semi-daily basis. He's going to play differently than he played 10 years ago but maybe not so different than he played two, three years ago.

"He'll do as much as he has to do to put us in the best chance to win. If that means a guy has got us going and we're scoring without him, he'll continue to facilitate. If he feels he has to score, he'll try to score and I think he will. I think he will be very effective. I'm not going to predict what his statistics will be but I don't think for a second that if we needed 30 or 35 from him one night that he couldn't get that. I think he can get that."

Bryant signed a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension with the Lakers last season. It was a deal that was widely panned by critics, but Kupchak believes it gives the Lakers stability over the next two seasons and a chance to win if Bryant can stay healthy.

"It's comforting to know that he will be here for two more years and he's healthy," Kupchak said. "With him on the court, we're always going to have a chance to win games. If we're lucky enough to have acquired a player in the offseason that plays better than expected or if we can get somebody during the season and that's not to say we will, then we can have a really good team. He gives you a chance, no matter the circumstances, to be really good."