Mitch Kupchak: Lakers' season about celebrating Kobe Bryant

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 6, 2016

LOS ANGELES -- For much of the 2015-16 season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been trying to balance the development of their younger players while also celebrating Kobe Bryant, who is retiring after his 20th campaign in the NBA.

Although the season isn't over, the Lakers sit at 8-28, and general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPN that this season is about Bryant.

Any plans to more frequently feature their younger core are on hold until he is gone.

"Under normal circumstances [in a season like this], at some point, you would probably concentrate on just developing all your young players," Kupchak told ESPN on Tuesday. "But we can't do that right now.

"This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God-willing, he's going to want to play every game and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that's just the way he is.

"And as long as that continues, which it should, then that's 30-35 minutes that you might give to a young player that you can't. How do you get a feel for your team going forward when you know that your best player is not going to be there next year? So it's really hard to go forward until he's no longer here.

"That's not a bad thing. I'm not saying it's a bad thing at all. It's something that I think is a good thing. In some regards, there's a silver lining. Our younger players can make mistakes, and it can kind of go under the radar because Kobe garnishes so much attention. Every game, it's about Kobe. Even when he doesn't play, it's about Kobe. So in a lot of regards, there's a silver lining that our guys can develop under the radar and maybe make a mistake or make two mistakes and it not be a big deal."

Rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell (No. 2 overall in 2015) and second-year power forward Julius Randle (No. 7 in '14) were both lottery picks. Jordan Clarkson was a second-round pick in 2014 who became an All-Rookie First-Team selection. Rookie forward Larry Nance Jr. also has emerged as a promising player.

Yet at various points during a season that still hasn't reached its halfway point, those players' minutes and even their roles have fluctuated dramatically. Russell and Randle, for example, started the team's first 20 games before being moved to the bench. Nance is starting in place of Randle. Clarkson is perhaps the steadiest of the group, averaging 14.8 points in 32 minutes per game even if the lineup has shifted around him plenty.

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Bryant has been a focus, with Lakers coach Byron Scott adamantly supporting his former teammate at every turn, even telling ESPN at one point that he would "never, never, never" bench the star no matter how much he struggles.

"I was hoping that our young players, in conjunction with the veterans that we added, and Kobe at full health, would lead to a better record than what we have today," Kupchak said. "I didn't have any visions that we'd win 50 games or 45. Could we have won 45 or 40? I guess it's possible. In fact, it still is possible.

"But where we stand today, it looks like we're not going to meet that benchmark. So, in some regards, I'm disappointed with where we are today, but it is what it is. Kobe's made a decision. He can't play every game. He wants to play every game. We have to figure out a way when he does play to play with him, get him the minutes that he wants, get him ready for the next game, hope he plays the next game, and if he doesn't, we have to get our lineup in such a way that we can compete and develop the young players. It's not a perfect scenario, but there's no way to plan this. There just isn't."

Kupchak believes that even if the younger players' development is on hold somewhat until Bryant leaves, they still have shown enough promise to give potential free agents a sense of what the Lakers have down the road.

"I think we'll see enough [from them]," Kupchak said. "Yeah, I think we'll see enough. I do. Kobe has been really good lately. He looks like he's trying to fit in and play the right way. Yeah, I think we'll see enough. Is it going to come as quick as you want? I mean, D'Angelo is going to be 20. They all want it now, but it's just going to take a year or two or three. But it's certainly going to be a lot more attractive than what we had to offer last summer."

What the Lakers offered last summer, Kupchak said, wasn't enough, and it contributed to the team missing out on all its top targets -- namely All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs -- for the third straight offseason.

"At the end of the day, last summer, we were trying to sell to free agents -- 'Come to LA, we have plenty of cap room, we have the No. 2 draft pick, we have a player we drafted No. 7 [overall] who didn't play this year who we think is going to be a heck of a player, and we've got Kobe, who is going to turn 36,'" Kupchak said. "That was our pitch. And that's a tough pitch to a veteran free agent. A veteran free agent really needs to hear more than that, especially if he's giving up a lot of money. He needs to see more of a core than the No. 2 pick, whom he may not even know who he is, and a player that got hurt in the first game of the season, and the rest of the guys that we had on the team and Kobe who hadn't played in two years. That's a tough pitch to a free agent. It really is.

"So I think going forward, we're going to have a lot more than that this year. And I'm hoping that will be attractive to more free agents this summer."

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