Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak held a live discussion on the current state of the franchise, hitting every major point of a disappointing season. Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell moderated the Lakers Voices chat, taking questions from social media as Kupchak went over a wide range of topics, including Kobe Bryant, the new core, Byron Scott's performance and more. His biggest focus was on D'Angelo Russell and a group of young prospects he is "very encouraged" by.
Mitch reiterated that the development of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Russell remains an area they want to continue focusing on, but that there's also importance in balancing Kobe Bryant's final season. "Knowing that you're not going to get into the playoffs, and knowing that Kobe's not going to be here a year from now, it makes you want to focus, as a manager, on the young players," Kupchak said when asked about how the two very different sides of the season are coming together. "But the reality is Kobe, although he's not going to be here next year, he will be with us for the rest of the year. This is his twentieth season, and he's just had a ridiculous career."
"We're trying to focus on the young group, but Kobe deserves a large degree of respect for what he's accomplished."
Kupchak pointed out the last three games for the Lakers as signs of the team heading in the direction they're hoping for as they transition. He cited the overtime loss in Minnesota, when Bryant made the case to coach Scott to let the young core finish the game, as a major stepping stone through the first stretch of the season. Still, he also made sure to point out the disappointment with the current record, hoping to have more wins with their re-worked roster.
"When you win some games there's a more positive environment and atmosphere. It just makes it a little bit more tolerable for young players to develop. You don't want to get to a position where you're losing every game, and it's tough," Kupchak said of the losing record. "At that point, yeah I want to develop, but you want to win games."
Russell's progress, Randle's impressive return and Clarkson's shifting role were three sticking points from Kupchak through the first quarter of the season, though.
Mitch spoke of Russell as a long-term prospect with a very high ceiling, as he always has, but also expressed optimism in the growth they've already seen from him. He noted that D'Angelo was out of rhythm and shape during Summer League, but used it as a "wake-up call" to work on his conditioning before training camp. Now, he's a "different player" that Kupchak called a future triple-double threat and player who can operate how the Lakers' offense is playing.
"As a ball-handling guard you can dictate the pace of the game, and that's something we think he can do... His gift is being able to deliver the ball and see the floor. I think he will also score. I think he will rebound at a high-level for a guard," Mitch said of what his outlook for the No. 2 pick is.
With Randle his departing thought was how impressive it is that it's only been roughly 14 months since he broke his leg, and he's already making an impact in his true rookie season. His rebounding and effort are two keys that Kupchak pointed out, though he also knows there's work to be done from both Randle and the basketball operations team. "We've gotta' figure out where he's going to be most effective offensively."
Adjustments are what define Clarkson's sophomore season to Kupchak. His shift from handling the ball through the second half of last season, to learning how to play in a rotation featuring D'Angelo, Kobe and Lou Williams. The signs have been positive as he learns to play off-ball more, particularly as he shoots 41.1 percent from three-point range.
Positive things are happening from the entire trio, but Kupchak didn't dismiss the issue of starting the year with 21 losses in 24 games. "It's not acceptable to lose but that's what we are right now. We're a young developing team that's going to lose some games," he said. "You don't want that to affect the overall picture, which is working to continue improving the team, and then individually getting players to develop."
Mitch expressed the need to wait to see how the season plays out before placing blame on anyone, with Byron Scott's accountability one of the pieces they'll look at "at a later date." There's open dialog between Kupchak and Scott, who went so far as to say they work as a "team," though he doesn't dictate rotations or roles to Byron. He commended Byron and the staff for maintaining a competitive environment with "spirited practices"
"To date, as I mentioned, players continue to play hard and that's the most important thing."
The overall tone was of cautious optimism in the very early stages of a long process. There's been a few sparks of good to go with the bad ugly, but there's still a lot of basketball left to be played. Here are a few more quotes from Kupchak, transcribed via the Lakers.com stream of his chat.
On if the Lakers have any trade plans currently:
"There are no plans. We haven't earmarked a player and said we have to trade this player. The phone calls begin about now, December 15th in our business is a meaningful day. It's a day when contracts that were signed this summer, those players can be traded.
There's a little bit more activity. Part of our job is to make calls and just get a feel, or get the pulse of the league. Whether or not it leads to a trade, who knows, but we don't have plans to trade a player."
On their use of a beefed-up analytics department:
"I think that's really a question for our coaches, because they're the ones that meet with Clay Moser, who works in our analytics department, and he's a link between our analysts and our coaching staff. Clay has a lot of experience as a coach, and the reports that are gathered every evening, that are generated, and are reviewed in the morning by our analytics department. That information is passed on to our coaches from Clay Moser.
It's varied amounts of information. It could be shot charts, it could be metrics, it could be which combinations of players play better. Their defensive metrics, and offensive metrics. It's a lot of information. Overwhelming, and you have to be careful as a department that the person who gives that information to the coaches is consistent. The information is succinct and not overwhelming to a coach."
On how he's gauging success in a season full of losses:
"You look for the players that they're going to continue to play hard. If their practices are still spirited. If they're coming early, they're staying late and they're working with our coaches. Not only to improve the team, but also individually.
It's important when you're going through tough times and you've got a long way to go that the coaches and the staff create an environment where players still want to come to and they want to work hard. And they just don't want to leave early and feel as if 'I gotta get outta here.'"
On whether developing the core is the most important aspect of the season going forward:
"There's no doubt we're a team in transition. We will continue to pursue free agents that are veterans, and we have several veterans that will be free agents that we have to evaluate and make a decision on this summer. In addition to that, we obviously have a core of young players that we are trying to develop and build around, It's important for us as a team to not only monitor and watch the young guys, but guys like Roy Hibbert, who's going to be a free agent."