It’s almost always better to under-promise and over-deliver.
That could be what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, freshly extended contractually, was thinking when he sat down with USA Today’s outstanding Sam Amick this week. At the very least, Kupchak made it clear that while the goal is obviously to get back atop the mountain quickly, the rebuild in El Segundo will take as long as it takes:
Q: You can’t talk about free agents, but is it accurate that you’re not going to reach for band-aid type player, that if a LeBron (James) or a (Carmelo Anthony)-type player aren’t available, that you don’t just do something to do something and that’s where the patience comes into play.
A: Well, obviously we’re not going to share our plan with you, OK? Our goal is not to go 41-41. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to be considerably better than that. And maybe we can do it in a year, or maybe it takes two or three years, OK? Any of those scenarios would be wonderful scenarios. I mean there have been teams — seven or eight teams in the NBA who have never even been to the Finals of the NBA and they’ve been around 30 or 40 years.
Yes, he said putting this thing back together in three years – this one doesn’t count, by the way – would be categorized among the “wonderful scenarios,” noting how many franchises wander the desert for decades without sniffing the Promised Land. My words not his, but basically Kupchak is telling Lakers fans, undeniably spoiled by the team’s consistent success, to suck it up and enter the real world. This jibes with the general evolution of Kupchak’s public comments over the course of the year, designed to temper expectations.
It wasn’t always so. At the end of last season, while never stating it themselves the Lakers let the restorative “Summer of ’14!” narrative take hold. Stick with us, people, it’ll all be over in a few months! Smartly, the team has gradually unwound that line of thought with more tempered messaging. Multiple reports (and sound logic) say they may not make a big free agent splash this offseason, and there will be no rush to use cap space save the portion already carved out for Kobe Bryant. It’s a process, this rebuilding thing. The CBA mitigates some of their traditional advantages. The front office has to be patient. Now Kupchak states the (totally realistic) idea the whole thing could take a year or three, if the Lakers can land somewhere in wonderful. Less wonderful might take a little longer, still.
Granted, Mitch is famous for this sort of thing. As he tells Amick, his plans are none of our business, anyway. But sometimes minimizing expectations isn’t just a function of public relations, but strategic team building. Fans don’t have to like it, but they ought to be prepared for it. They certainly shouldn’t be fed false hope. Throughout the interview, Kupchak reinforced the deliberateness with which the Lakers will proceed. “As much as we’d like to be very competitive and competing for a championship next year,” he tells Amick, “it may or may not happen, ok?”
What about Kobe? Won’t he be pissed if the Lakers aren’t contenders next year?
“He’ll be fine,” Kupchak says. “He’s got no choice.”
SOL*. Which is the truth.
I wrote last week about the reasons the Lakers might not want to fire Mike D’Antoni this summer and ticked off quite a few people, some of whom disagreed with my premise while others completely missed the point.** Hearing Kupchak communicate in stark terms about the next couple seasons, something I’m sure he’ll do again once exit interviews roll around in 10 days or so, gives me more confidence the Lakers, historically not a panicky organization under Dr. Buss, won’t buckle to public pressure this summer or going forward, making moves outside their strategic plan just to appease Kobe or get fans and media to lower the flame under Jim Buss’ desk chair. Hopefully, if/when they fire D’Antoni, it’ll be with a clear plan in mind for matching Future Coach to Future Roster led by Future Star.
(Patience, by the way, is more Buss’ burden than Kupchak’s. If things stay sour next year, Mitch will get criticized, but the heaviest artillery will be aimed at Jim. Fair or not, that’s just reality.)
This is how it has to be, because the Lakers can’t afford to let optics dictate the rebuild. Despite the general cleanliness of their books, they don’t have a full complement of draft choices, and no truly marketable young talent to dangle in front of teams in a trade.*** (Save, of course, the guy they’ll draft this summer.) They can’t do what Houston did to get James Harden. Without those things, the CBA makes it tougher to round out a roster, even when they eventually get their next franchise cornerstone.
There is always the chance opportunity will come earlier or packaged differently than expected. Pau Gasol did. So did Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Not that the latter two worked out well, but at the time both looked like a startlingly good return on flawed assets. Stuff happens in the NBA. The Lakers will not only have cap space to sign players, but make trades without sending corresponding salary back. I trust Kupchak to exploit opportunities when they arise.
But sometimes you just have to wait. Which, as a wise man and his backup band once noted, is the hardest part. Given how sobering Kupchak generally sounds even when his amp is turned up to 11, he’s a perfect spokesperson for the message.
*Your reaction to this sentiment could goes a long way towards determining whether you’re among the warring fans AK wrote about last week.
**To reiterate, I don’t care if D’Antoni is fired this summer. He will and should be replaced, whether this summer or next. Even if you believe he’s a great coach who hasn’t been given a fair shake (I’m not in that group), there’s just no way he can be rehabilitated in this town. Can’t happen. I just don’t want him fired because the organization feels pressure to throw red meat to the fans. When they can MDA, the Lakers need to have a solid plan ready to replace him and build the appropriate accompanying roster, as opposed to opening up the Rolodex and making calls until someone they hope fans like/have heard of says yes.
***This is why I’m inclined not to trade the pick. Even if the Lakers can swing Kevin Love, they’ll still need more pieces around him going forward. Difficult to do through free agency alone. So let’s say the Lakers can’t get a star, but do get someone who can be a solid second or third best player on a championship team going forward. That guy, locked into a rookie salary scale, has tremendous value. So roll the dice. Keep the pick, and go sign Love (or make some other move) down the road.