Lakers GM confident in Kobe Bryant

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak doesn't doubt Kobe Bryant's will or toughness. When the 17-year veteran says he's way ahead of schedule in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles, Kupchak believes him.

But when assessing the state of the Lakers at this critical juncture -- after the departure of free agent center Dwight Howard -- the "uncertainty" of Bryant's health remains Kupchak's most pressing concern.

"The primary weakness is uncertainty. I don't think that's a secret to anybody," Kupchak said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview with Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio's "The Herd." "Our best player, one of the best players ever to play the game, is recovering from an Achilles tendon tear and one of the other all-time best, Steve Nash, ended the season injured.

"Steve, to my understanding, is close to 100 percent, but he's not as young as he once was and Kobe's a big question mark. We're very optimistic, he's getting treatment every day, he's in the facility right now, but he hasn't been on a basketball court. Uncertainty going forward, I guess with our health status would be the biggest question mark."

Last week, Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss told ESPNLosAngeles.com that she hoped Bryant would be a Laker for life, and urged him not to rush back from the injury until he was fully recovered.

"Kobe is part of the Laker family and he always will be," Buss said. "There's not many players who play 18-19 years with the same franchise, and it's important to us that he has a chance to play his entire career with the Lakers.

"I want Kobe to take the time that he needs to get healthy. I don't want to see him come back any sooner than when he's ready, and I know he'll know when that is. There's no reason for him to do anything that compromises his health."

Besides pursuing his sixth NBA title and proving he can still be an elite player at age 35, Bryant is in the final year of his contract. At $30.5 million a season, he's also the highest paid player in the NBA.

Kupchak said Thursday that no discussions about an extension with Bryant or his camp have begun, but he also wasn't ruling anything out yet.

When asked if Bryant could still be a Laker in three years, Kupchak said, "If he can play at a high level, I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be."

"There really has been no discussions beyond next year for obvious reasons," Kupchak said. "You have a player who is up in age and just had a devastating injury. Obviously, we created an environment with our team where were looking to have financial flexibility a year from now, so that plays into it."

Kupchak also left the door open for forward Pau Gasol to stay with the Lakers beyond the end of his contract, which also expires this year.

"We're in a cycle," Kupchak said. "We're hopeful that within a year from now, we'll have enough flexibility. We're hopeful that Pau and Kobe can continue to play and we'll have options to rebuild the team."

Rebuilding is necessary now because the Lakers' original plan of handing off the franchise to Howard fell apart when he decided to bolt for the Houston Rockets as a free agent in July.

Buss is on record as saying she believed her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, could've persuaded Howard to stay with the Lakers because he was "the best closer in the business."

Kupchak didn't comment directly on that assertion, but noted that "with Dr. Buss' passing, you have to give the organization time to work out a new way of working together."

As for the ill-fated pursuit of Howard and the emotional final pitch meeting, Kupchak said he felt the Lakers needed to give Howard a chance to question both ownership and his teammates -- Bryant and Nash -- about issues that may have come up during the season.

"We believe in getting it all out there," Kupchak said. "And we felt our best chance to keep Dwight was to get the principal leaders in the room together and that included ownership, myself, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and if there is a problem, let's get it on the table and let's work it out.

"I felt the meeting was very constructive. It wasn't an easy meeting to be involved in and I decline to go into great detail, but I thought it was very constructive and could have gone either way, to be honest with you."

Ultimately, it didn't go the Lakers' way.

Howard left for Houston, leaving the Lakers with a giant hole in the middle of their defense -- many of the same pieces that finished just eighth in the Western Conference last season -- and much-maligned coach Mike D'Antoni in charge of righting the ship.

Kupchak also was asked again whether he regretted not hiring Phil Jackson last season, when Mike Brown was fired just five games into the year, or the way in which Jackson learned the organization had chosen D'Antoni.

"I would say 'clumsy' is not a bad characterization only because of the late-night phone call and there was really no other way to get around it in this business," Kupchak said of the infamous midnight phone call he placed to Jackson, informing him of the Lakers' decision.

"The last thing we wanted was Phil Jackson, who we love in the organization, the city loves him, was to wake up in the morning ... would he get a phone call from somebody at 4 or 5:00 in the morning saying, 'Guess what? Didn't Mitch tell you?' But there was really no other way to do it, and you could say it was clumsy."

Jackson has commented on the situation numerous times since last November, and on the Lakers' current team and its play.

Because of his history with the franchise and relationship with Jeanie Buss, Kupchak was asked if those comments could seem difficult for D'Antoni to hear and read.

"We don't discuss it very often, but it's got to be hard, it really does," Kupchak said. "You know Phil is a very close friend of mine and he's an icon, not only in this city, but in the basketball community -- and he's revered here.

"Certainly there was some feeling that Phil would coach this year and then we hire Mike D'Antoni and from the get go, he really, really has been under a lot of criticism so it can't be easy."

Kupchak maintains a friendship with Jackson, and isn't shy about asking his advice on basketball questions. He said he's joked with Jackson a bit on the issue but "you really can't ask people not to talk."

D'Antoni, he said, never has addressed the subject with him.

"No, he hasn't," Kupchak said. "But he came from New York, too. It's not like he came from someplace with no criticism."