Lakers GM Kupchak downplays team's drama amid Fisher's return
LOS ANGELES -- Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sat at a dining room table on Thursday at Staples Center, his salad and chicken going untouched for several minutes while he graciously answered the many questions surrounding his team.
Yes, there's always a storyline when it comes to the Lakers, but this was a particularly compelling week that Kupchak surely wishes had been quieter. The back-to-back benchings of Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum on Sunday and Tuesday were followed by the Derek Fisher reunion game against Oklahoma City on Thursday, and headline writers in the Los Angeles area would undoubtedly be putting in for overtime.
Never mind that the Lakers entered play as the third-best team in the Western Conference. It was too tough to see through the blinding smoke of all these fires Kupchak has been putting out.
Yet the Fisher and Bynum situations, specifically, say everything about the state of the franchise these days. The Buss family that owns the team is trusting Kupchak to start this segue, to build that bridge from the old-dog past to the youth-filled future. Bryant is still the alpha male in the group, but his beloved sidekick is gone and the 24-year-old man-child who is next in line for super stardom is testing the boundaries of his newfound stature.
Kupchak handled both topics with delicacy, but his energy has recently been spent on the players that remain as opposed to the one who does not. As coach Mike Brown revealed in his pregame news conference, Bynum's defiant comments following Tuesday's game in which he launched an ill-advised three-pointer with more than 15 seconds left on the shot clock early in the third quarter -- he said the it was just a preview of things to come with his growing offensive repertoire -- were enough to get Kupchak's attention.
"Mitch read the comments, and Mitch told me that it was going to be dealt with internally," Brown had said.
Asked to elaborate on those discussions, Kupchak wouldn't say whether there was a meeting or perhaps even a team fine. However, a discussion clearly seemed to have been had between the GM and young center.
"So much has been said [about Bynum's benching], much has been dissected, and rightfully so," Kupchak said. "Obviously some of it you write off. Some of it can be attributed to a person growing up, and some of it just has to be addressed. So we'll do that internally. And I think like most young, intelligent people, he'll be better for it."
But Bynum's track record over the last eight months hardly speaks to his well-regarded intellect. The classless forearm shiver to then-Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea in last season's playoffs cost him a crucial four games to start the season, and the incidents have continued ever since.
To wit: On March 7, Bynum admitted to "loafing" in a loss in Washington -- not exactly what your bosses or fans want to hear. Then on March 20, in a scene that was reminiscent of his playoff ejection against the Mavericks, Bynum was tossed from a game against the Rockets after receiving two technicals for arguing with officials. On his way off the Toyota Center floor, he offered immature high-fives to Houston fans sitting courtside before a security guard has to steer him toward the exits.
Bynum has had a phenomenal season nonetheless, averaging a career-high 18.2 points and 12.2 rebounds through Wednesday, with a Player Efficiency Rating that ranks 12th in the league, up from 21st last season. Which begs the question of whether Bynum's three-pointer was really about three-pointers at all. Was he truly looking to expand his game, or was he testing his first-year coach?
"I don't think [Bynum was testing Brown]," Kupchak said. "I really think that he thought he could make it, because he made one the night before. Now he's come a long way this year, and his confidence level has soared. But sometimes you have too much confidence, and I think that might have been the case there."
The conversation that Kupchak may or may not have had with Bynum is believed to have been positive.
"In general, he is very receptive," Kupchak said. "Normally we have no trouble getting his view. He's a great kid, very well read, and it's always good to sit down and get his side of things.
"If you have families, you know that somebody else's side of something in the family is not always the way you look at it. He thinks things through and he's opinionated, which we respect."
There have been no such discussions between him and Fisher, whom Kupchak said he has not spoken with since he was traded to Houston and later bought out. The point guard who played such a pivotal part in five Lakers championships was clearly disappointed with how the trade was handled, a sentiment he reiterated before the game.
"I've always thought that there were different ways to handle trade and waiver-type situations where there can be some more communication -- not necessarily far in advance, but enough to not have to find out from the mailman or at the post office that you've been traded," Fisher said. "And I'm not saying that's what happened in this case, but I did wake up and I was traded."
The real irritation for Fisher, it seemed, was Kupchak's insinuation in the days following the trade that he had to be moved to avoid a problematic locker-room dynamic. Ramon Sessions was coming via trade from Cleveland, and Kupchak thought it was best to send the incumbent point guard on his way for the benefit of the replacement.
"No," Kupchak said when asked if he was worried what kind of teammate Fisher would be. "I mean, he wouldn't have been happy. He wants to play. You go from a starter to maybe a bench player, at best, and you're not going to be happy. But he would've been the consummate professional. That's just the way he leads his life.
"Derek's an icon. You know [if you're Sessions] that you're walking past Derek and saying, 'I'm taking his minutes.' For a young, developing player, that's really not fair to do. What if Ramon has a bad game at home, and the crowd starts to cheer for [Derek], you know what I mean? It's not right."
And as the last week has shown, there's plenty wrong with the Lakers as it is.