EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- A day after the worst season in Lakers franchise history finally ended, general manager Mitch Kupchak discussed when he believes the team will be a contender again.
"We can get better quickly," Kupchak said Thursday, pointing to the upcoming offseason. "We can be in the hunt quickly. A lot depends on May 19 and how we end up with the [draft] lottery, the draft and the period leading up to the free-agent period, which is July 1.
"We are in a good position despite having a terrible year."
The Lakers finished 21-61 this season, their most losses and worst winning percentage (.256) ever. The previous record for most losses came last season, when they finished 27-55.
The Lakers hold a 2015 first-round pick that is top-five protected. If that pick falls outside the first five slots, it goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired the pick from the Suns in February. Phoenix acquired that pick in the 2012 trade that sent Steve Nash to the Lakers. Because the Lakers clinched the league's fourth-worst record, they'll have an 82.8 percent chance of retaining that pick, a 37.9 chance of vaulting into the top three and an 11.9 chance of landing the top overall pick come the May 19 lottery draw.
"We'd like to have something in our pocket for the way the year went," Kupchak said.
There's more pressure than ever on Kupchak and the Lakers' front office to return to contending status soon, making this a crucial summer. The team missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, a rarity since it reached the postseason in 60 of the franchise's 67 years.
"We have great fans, and to a degree, they are patient, but I don't think anyone is used to waiting a long time for a turnaround," Kupchak said. "That's a factor we have to weigh into our decision."
Team president and governor Jeanie Buss has said she expects the Lakers to reach the Western Conference finals in three years or else changes will be made. Jim Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president of player personnel and Jeanie's brother, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 that he would step down if the team does not reach that benchmark.
Kupchak said he hadn't seen Jim Buss' comment, then added, "What's my sense of being in the conference finals within three years? I think it's possible.
"But what if you get to the conference semifinals, you lose in seven [games] and you have a great team that you know is going to get better and better? So I don't think there is anything etched in stone that would determine any change in direction. Three years from now is forever."
The Lakers are projected to have enough salary-cap space to acquire a max-level free agent this summer, and the potential pool of players includes Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic and Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo.
Kupchak said they won't make the Lakers' history -- 16 championships, second-most in the NBA behind the Boston Celtics' 17 -- a part of their recruiting pitch.
"When we entertain or recruit free agents, we rarely sell the past and legacy here," he said. "If you're an NBA fan, or if you're an NBA player or if you're in college, you know what the Lakers have accomplished since they came [to Los Angeles] in 1960.
"That's not something that we roll out there because the players really don't want to hear about it. They want to know about the team you're building, the opportunity and what they'll be looking at going forward. So that's what we'll try to sell them on."
The Lakers' future is certainly murky at best, perhaps even more so because they've struck out on big names in free agency in the past two years and then, in consecutive seasons, had Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard each leave to take less money elsewhere.
At the moment, the Lakers have four players on guaranteed contracts for 2015-16 -- Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle and Kobe Bryant, who is set to be paid a league-high $25 million in the final year of his contract. The team also has said that rookie guard Jordan Clarkson, a 2014 second-round pick who showed great promise, will be back. Forward Ed Davis said he plans to opt out of his $1.2 million player option in hopes of a long-term deal.
"We'd love to have Ed Davis on our team," Kupchak said.
Kupchak seemed uncertain about whether the Lakers will pick up their $9 million option on forward Jordan Hill.
Bryant will turn 37 in August and is recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Kupchak said he's not sure what to expect next season from the Lakers' All-Star, who has missed the bulk of the past three years because of shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries -- and who shot a career-low 37.3 percent from the floor in just 35 games last season.
"The makeup of the team right now is just not clear enough for us to drop Kobe in and say, 'This is what we expect. Can you do it?'" Kupchak said. "We have to wait."
Likewise, Kupchak said he wasn't sure whether Bryant would want to play beyond next season -- his 20th in the NBA.
"I have assumed that he has one year to go," Kupchak said. "That's all I can plan on. That's all he's planning on. A year from now, maybe different. But right now, that's all we're planning on."
Bryant didn't speak to the media Thursday, but according to coach Byron Scott, he recently started lifting weights as he rehabs his shoulder.
"I don't want him to overdo it," Scott said. "I know his mindset when he gets ready for training camp, he wants to go all out."
For now, what the Lakers are planning on is spending wisely with an eye toward the future rather than trying to load up on veteran contracts in order to make a title run during what's expected to be Bryant's final year as a Laker.
"We're not going to use cap room just to use cap room and maybe improve," Kupchak said. "I can use the expression 20 games because we won so few games this year. We don't want to end up using our cap room and winning 40 games. That year doesn't get you in the playoffs. Oklahoma City won 45 games, and they still didn't make it in the playoffs.
"You work hard to create a future, whether it's draft picks or an opportunity to make a trade or free-agent dollars, and you don't want to give it away just because you have it. But you do have to weigh anticipation and your fans wanting to see some improvement. That is a challenge. That's not to say the only player we'll spend our money on is a max player. There may be better opportunities out there.
"We don't know that right now. We do have to balance how you use that money, and two years from now there's a dramatic change in the landscape in terms of the cap."
The NBA's reported nine-year, $24 billion television deal with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting is expected to kick in during the 2017 offseason. The 2015 cap is set at $63 million and was projected to hit $66 million in '16. New revenue is estimated to hike the 2016 cap to between $88 million and $92 million. To put that in perspective, the largest salary-cap jump in NBA history, until now, was $7 million in one season. Increases in the 2016 cap would triple that.
"It's pretty crazy," Kupchak said. "We spend a lot of time looking at spreadsheets. ... What happens this summer? What do players do? I don't know what they do."
He added that if the cap increases as much as expected, "You have to change the way you think about valuing players. A player today that is a $5 million player is maybe a $9 million player just a year from now. That might be hard for a lot of people to wrap their arms around. So we spend a lot of time on it and will get an indication of this summer and how players will deal with it."