Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said what's been painfully obvious through most of '15-16 season; the youth development and movement is taking a backseat to Kobe Bryant's final season in the NBA. "Under normal circumstances [in a season like this], at some point, you would probably concentrate on just developing all your young players," Kupchak told Baxter Holmes of ESPN. "But we can't do that right now."
This comes as no surprise and isn't the first time the Lakers' front office has alluded to the primary focus being Kobe's goodbye to the league. Letting a 20-year veteran enjoy the kind of sendoff he deserves makes for a conflicting process for the Lakers, who have a roster split between seasoned players and fresh meat. The veterans, like Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, are there to provide stability around Bryant and the youth, but that's morphed into a roster that seemingly doesn't fit anything.
D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have both gone from lottery draft picks in the starting lineup to the bench while seeing their minutes fluctuate all season. Tarik Black has played in just nine games for a total of 99 minutes, while Anthony Brown has seen the majority of his limited minutes solely in games that Bryant's missed. Larry Nance, Jr., though, has emerged as a key part of Scott's rotation in recent weeks after sliding into the starting lineup.
The basketball operations team is dealing with the challenge of managing a roster that needs to be built for tomorrow while saying goodbye to the past, which only adds to the challenges Scott has to manage as a head coach. Kupchak sees a "silver lining" in Kobe soaking the attention, though, which he laid out to Holmes:
"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."
The trouble with this through the first 36 games is those mistakes have hardly been shuffled under the rug. Scott has been public with his criticisms of the youth, most recently calling out Randle's defense and later saying the Kentucky product needs to "grow up." The conflicting goals of the franchise creates the perception the front office and coaching staff are out of touch with what needs to happen to rebuild from the ashes of franchise-worst seasons and missed free agency pitches. There's also the question as to why focusing on developing the most important players on the roster and respecting Kobe's final season have to be mutually exclusive.
Kupchak and the front office seem to now be willing to accept Bryant's goodbye as part of the reason they're not all-in on the youth development, but it's a different tune than we heard from Mitch in early-December. "I think our fans understand, this being Kobe's last year, after 19 just ridiculous years, that we're in a year that there's going to be a salute and a goodbye, which in itself is exciting. But we've got to give them more than that," Kupchak told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview.
One month later and Kupchak's quotes sound like the Lakers are increasingly prepared to chalk up a disappointing season and the final 50 games of the season to Kobe's goodbye. Still, Mitch shared optimism in being able to offer more to players this summer after having a full season with Randle, Russell and the youth along with the franchise officially moving on from a 20-year run with Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers are bad for a number of reasons, and it's not fair to pin it solely on the sore shoulders of Bryant and his farewell tour. The talent the front office pieced together has fallen short of expectations, the youth are still learning how to compete in the NBA on a nightly basis and the billowing smoke rising from criticisms Scott's roster management indicate there's definitely a fire burning in the coaching department. The real "silver lining" to extract form Mitch's recent words are the ones that seem to indicate the Lakers will proceed very different once Kobe's career comes to a close.
Kupchak reveals more about the current state of the Lakers and where he thinks they'll be once free agency begins in the full piece from Holmes, so head over to ESPN for the full story.