Lakers GM cautiously optimistic after headline-grabbing offseason
General manager Mitch Kupchak expects the Lakers to contend for a championship
Kupchak on his starting five: "[I]t's a great group, but I wish they were younger"
The Lakers are hoping that Dwight Howard will fall for Los Angeles and re-sign
Mitch Kupchak knows stories like this one won't matter come June, when all the hype is gone and his Lakers will either be pushing toward the only goal that matters or explaining what went wrong during yet another offseason of change.
Championship-or-bust is an enviable stance to take, to be sure, a creed that only the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs have been able to realistically embrace for decades at a time. Which is why, when the Lakers' general manager agreed to speak with SI.com about the new superteam he created by adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, he didn't get past his first sentence before sharing the organization's unofficial mantra heading into next month's training camp: On Paper.
It's not the sexiest slogan, but they may as well mass produce the purple and gold T-shirts and get them ready for the preseason home opener against Golden State on Oct. 7. The Lakers, with a starting five for the ages in Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard, will have to prove they're worthy of all this ink. And if they don't, there will be hell to pay for all the hullabaloo.
Just nine months after Kupchak was devastated by the NBA's infamous voiding of the Chris Paul trade with New Orleans and, according to one Lakers insider, even considered leaving the Lakers, both he and the Lakers are revamped and revitalized again. He weighed in on his amazing summer via phone from Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon, discussing the endless possibilities of his new-look roster; how Howard and Bryant will fit together; Howard's health; his unexpected acquisition of Nash; and the pressure on coach Mike Brown as he enters the second of three guaranteed years on his contract (the fourth season is a team option with the entire deal worth about $18 million).
SI.com: The curiosity about your team is obviously through the roof even more than in most years, which is saying something for a franchise that's always front and center. I wanted to hit the rewind button and go back to last December, when the trade for Chris Paul didn't happen and then things were tough from there. To go from that to this is pretty remarkable, no?
Kupchak: On paper, we've made what we think are improvements. I think we're going to be in the hunt. I don't know if we'll lead the pack or be second in the pack or be fourth in the pack or fifth, but I think that we'll be in the hunt and we're better than we were a year ago. Is it time to celebrate? Absolutely not. You're going to have to wait a year and see how it all plays out.
Last year was a difficult year for everybody associated with the NBA. If you had your coaching staff in place, and you had your team in place, you had an advantage. Teams that made coaching changes, or made personnel changes, with the shortened season, it became difficult to play your best basketball. And then without getting into great detail, the way we started the season with the trade that had to be undone and a lot of feelings were hurt. That didn't help our coaches, who were new to Los Angeles in a strike-shortened season. But that shortened season applied to everybody.
SI.com: You've been doing this a long time [Kupchak became a Lakers assistant GM in 1986], and I know it's not a time for reflection, but in terms of the way you look at your career from a personnel standpoint, how memorable have the ups and downs of this last year been for you?
Kupchak: In our business, you really don't have a chance to look back on it. Without the benefit of playing a season or two [with this Lakers team], you really can't look at it that way. I remember we had a great summer [in 2003] when we brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and we had Shaq and Kobe, and we almost got swept in the Finals [by Detroit after a 56-26 season]. The result was really a big-time change after that season [which included, among other things, the trading of Shaquille O'Neal to Miami and the departure of coach Phil Jackson]. It's really too early, and GMs have a hard time really trying to project. You really do have to wait. You're always looking ahead to what the problems may be.
There's been a lot of positive publicity surrounding this team, but I know when you lose three in a row that all of a sudden it's going to be "Break up the Lakers." And then you start to worry about injuries, and then you look around at the league and who else has made improvements. So you're never really feeling good about anything that's taken place. You just kind of keep moving ahead and then you always try to figure out what could go wrong.
SI.com: You mention the summer with Karl and Gary. Has that season become a little bit of a cautionary tale in terms of not counting your chickens before they hatch with this group?
Kupchak: Adding Karl and Payton was a big positive to this organization. The hype surrounding them coming on board, and we had a great regular-season record. But we lost in the Finals, and that's how this organization is judged. I know that's how I'm judged with ownership and the people who have grown up watching the Lakers. It's about winning a championship, not about having a great record or about losing in the conference finals or winning your division.
SI.com: Because you're obviously taking the measured approach with how you look at this team, what jumps out as far as concerns or things to watch?
Kupchak: A perfect example is that a lot of people say, "Hey, Mitch, you've got a great starting five, are you worried about anything or could you possibly wish for anything more?" And the first thing that comes to my mind is, "Yeah, I wish they were all 25." That's how I look at things. Yeah, it's a great group, but I wish they were younger.
SI.com: Specifically with Steve, and speaking of age, did you take stock in what you thought was the state of his game at his age right now  before doing that deal or simply look at it like, "Steve Nash at any age is better than what we've had"?
Kupchak: To be honest with you, we didn't feel it was realistic to pursue him, although we did. At 12:01 [ET on the morning of July 1, the first day of free agency], we put the call in to his representative, Bill Duffy, and I'm talking to Bill and expressing interest in Steve. I felt I had to do that because he's available. I didn't think for a second that we had a chance to get him. And then Bill says to me, "Well, Mitch, would you like to speak with him? He's with me right now." I didn't expect to speak with him at 12:01 on the evening of free agency, and after I hung up, I said to myself, "Wow, that was a great conversation but I'll probably never hear from him again." We didn't have the money, and my feeling was that New York and Toronto were front-runners. On top of that, Phoenix would not do a deal with us, so I didn't see how it was possible."
SI.com: What made it a great conversation that night?
Kupchak: I didn't expect to talk to him. It was very upbeat. He expressed admiration for our organization. I expressed my admiration for his career and what he has accomplished. It was a very pleasant and direct conversation, but he probably had five or six conversations that night like that so I didn't make much of it.