Kupchak on Howard: “We got the best”
The Los Angeles Lakers introduced Dwight Howard on Friday after completing a four-team trade with the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets.
Howard spoke about how excited he is to be a Laker, but did his best to avoid any and all questions about the recent past and the near future. For Howard it was about the season ahead – not the lengthy drama that led to his departure from Orlando and not the uncertainty of his contract beyond the current year.
It doesn’t make much financial sense for Howard to take an extension from the Lakers, which would only amount to three additional years. Once he hits free agency next July, he’ll be eligible for a more-lucrative five-year deal.
Howard didn’t hint he’d stay. He didn’t suggest he wouldn’t. He just chose to avoid the topic altogether.
The Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and draft considerations for Howard, completing this summer’s monumental makeover as orchestrated by General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Executive President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss. Earlier in the summer, the team had added on Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison. Guard Jodie Meeks has agreed to terms. Jordan Hill was re-signed and the Lakers also brought in Chris Duhon and Earl Clark in the Howard deal.
After landing Nash, Kupchak noted it wasn’t easy to hit a home run and that he didn’t think he had another one in him.
On Friday, after welcoming Howard, Kupchak declared, “No more home runs.”
Of course this story can’t be truly judged until Howard re-signs next July, if he re-signs. The Lakers will have the ability to pay him more than any other team, which certainly works in their favor.
“Our feeling was, no matter what anybody said, let’s just get him to Los Angeles and we’ll take our chances,” said Kupchak. “In fact, in all my years there’s only one player who left Los Angeles, and I’m still not sure why he did it, and that’s A.C. Green.”
Green would eventually return to help Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant win their first titles together in 2000.
Kupchak helped guide the Lakers from the original three-peat to the Pau Gasol/Bryant era that resulted in back-to-back titles. Now he’s put together a team that can boast a pair of League MVPs in the backcourt, two Defensive Players of the Year in the front.
“Certainly they’re an accomplished starting-five,” said Kupchak. “I wish they were all 22. I’d feel a lot better than I do now, but I feel pretty good.”
The Lakers didn’t give up Gasol to Orlando as rumored.
“Pau was never part of a deal this summer,” said Kupchak.
They didn’t take on egregious salary. Clark is an expiring contract. Duhon is owed $3.75 million for 2013-14 but only about $1.5 million is guaranteed.
Certainly the Lakers are heavily invested with a payroll that is nearing $100 million before luxury taxes. That amount won’t dip much at all, assuming Howard does re-sign – just as the luxury tax rates starts to amplify.
Kupchak tried to deflect some of the credit for his work.
“Since [the Buss family] bought the franchise back in 1979, it just seems like they’ve always found a way to make good things happen,” said the Laker GM. “There’s an expression that it starts at the top and I think that expression holds true here.”
Gradually the “top” has shifted from owner Dr. Jerry Buss and son/successor Jim Buss. It was not an easy transition which at times had polarized with former Head Coach Phil Jackson and Lakers Executive Vice President of Business Operations Jeanie Buss on one side and Jim on the other.
Kupchak found himself somewhere in the middle, trying to please all sides and still field a championship-caliber team.
On Friday Jeanie, who has kept a relatively low profile around the team publicly since Jackson departed, and Jimmy sat together in the front row to watch Howard’s introduction. They later flanked Howard for pictures, a new era of detente between the Laker siblings.
Meanwhile earlier in the day, teammates Bryant and Gasol set the stage for a Team USA-Spain rematch in the Olympic finals. Bryant had been fiercely protective of Gasol and now, together, the pair will come back home with an even deeper and more-talented Laker roster.
“When it comes down to it, and I’ve always said it, everyone who owns a family-owned business, they want to make a profit so their business can survive and prosper. Dr. Buss and his family are very competitive,” said Kupchak. “When it comes to a couple dollars or $10 million dollars and putting up another banner, he can’t help himself. He’s chooses to go for the banner.”
So will Howard, whose final season in Orlando ended prematurely after a back injury, be able to recover in time from offseason surgery to play on the October 30th opener?
Howard couldn’t say, noting he’s still not cleared to run or play any real basketball.
“Well it’s a concern of course, but I had two back surgeries when they used rocks and rebar to open up a back,” joked Kupchak. “Today, 35-40 years later, they’re so sophisticated. Players come back in six or seven months. We feel very sure that he’s going to be back, we’re hopeful he’s back for camp. We’re hopeful he’s back for the start of the season. But, we know he’s going to be and playing at a high level at some point and time.”
Kupchak certainly didn’t seem worried about the back or about Howard’s expiring contract.
“I think up in my office he was very warm and seemed sincere and excited about being here,” said Kupchak. “I thought he did a good job at the press conference at disarming the media. There’s some pretty hostile questions that had to be asked, that’s the job and he knows it. I think he handled it well.”
In saying goodbye to Bynum, Kupchak had nothing but praise, noting he very well could have been the team’s long-term center had things not resolved as they did with Howard.
“[Bynum] played seven years here. He had a great career. Unfortunately he had two freak injuries that set him back a little bit, but we’re talking about the starting center in the West being traded for the starting center in the East. So, I don’t think anybody has to defend Andrew Bynum’s accomplishments,” said Kupchak. “He’s going to an area that’s a little closer to home. He is going to continue grow on and off the court. We had no concerns.”
So then why go through all these months of trouble to trade the second-best center in the league for the best?
“You answered your own question,” said Kupchak. “We got the best.”
The Lakers are expected to sign Jodie Meeks in the coming days.
“We’ve had some pretty intimate conversations with his representatives,” said Kupchak. “Clearly he’d be a backup to Kobe in the backcourt. I’m not sure he’d be a small forward. I think he can bring the ball up a little bit, but that’s not what you’d let him do . . . he has great range, more than an adequate defender, is a great kid. With our team, players who can shoot the ball make it easier for everybody.”
Kupchak had little to say about Earl Clark, acquired in the Magic deal but elaborated on Chris Duhon.
“Well putting Josh McRoberts in the deal, we needed to get a big player back,” said Kupchak. “And Chris’ contributions, although he went do Duke which is always a problem for me, I told him so this morning. He’s a good player. He’s going to give us a lot of depth in the backcourt. We like Darius Morris, but he’s only a second-year player who didn’t play a lot last year. With Nash, Duhon and Blake we have a lot of depth at that position.”
The Lakers also have a qualifying offer out to Devin Ebanks, who is expected to sign it soon and stay with the team for another season.
LA has been linked to Kenyon Martin, although the roster would seem full in the front court if Clark is the fifth big behind Howard, Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill. Martin would seem to be a stretch at this point, although the Lakers seem to be pushing all of their chips into the middle of the table.
With Ebanks, Meeks and Andrew Goudelock, who has a non-guaranteed contract, the team would have 14 players. The Lakers also have the rights to second-round picks Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre but neither has signed yet.
Kupchak on Negotiating the Deal
“Well while it certainly took a lot longer than most deals take. Obviously, this has been going on for quite some time. We actually had discussion prior to the trade deadline back in March. Nothing ever got to the point where we thought we had a deal. In fact, to credit Rob Hennigan the GM of Orlando Magic, it got to the point for me where it was quite frankly frustrating. What he was doing was his job, which was to sort out and seek out the best possible deal for the organization.
“So up until two days ago I didn’t feel there would be a deal to get Dwight here to Los Angeles, but on Wednesday afternoon from Rob making a proposal and here it is less than 48 hours later. Yesterday was a pretty fast moving day in negotiation but last night we had a four-team conference call and we all agreed to keep it quiet. Twenty minutes later, on my ride home, someone had the exact deal on radio. For having done this for some many years there wasn’t a comfort level until nine o’clock [Friday], we had the trade call and the deal was done.”
“I don’t have a relationship with Rob like I do the other GMs because it takes time to get to know somebody, so I have to learn his style. But, looking back on it he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He took his time, looked at every opportunity, narrowed it down, negotiated, went to other teams, negotiated some more and kept coming back to you. I never thought it would be a four team deal, I thought it might be a three team deal. Even when I thought there might be a deal he went and found a fourth to make it a better deal.”
“I just never felt that there was a deal that they thought they would do. Without going into great detail I just felt the Magic were just canvasing the league, which is the job. There’s a timetable for everybody, but our timetable should have no impact on their timetable. Up until Wednesday I didn’t think there was going to be a deal. It got really quiet a couple weeks ago, before then it was really crazy, then it just died. So we had kind of moved on, we signed Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and thought it was over.”
“Rookies, who were signed, can’t be traded for 30 days and I think [Mo] Harkless was signed 31 days ago. That may have had something to do with [the delay]. Maybe they were waiting and maybe they knew they were going to do something with Philly and they weren’t going to tell us about it until they were sure. And I know Denver was a late entry that really didn’t commit until recently. I’m starting to think there was always something there between Orlando and Philly, but they had to wait.”
“When you’re able to keep Pau and get Howard I know I’m ecstatic, I know Jim Buss is and I know Coach [Mike Brown] is. When we told him yesterday after we had the conference call I told Mike I thought we have a deal”
“He looked at me and asked ‘Who we’re getting?’”
“I said ‘Dwight.’”
“He said ‘Who is going out?’, and I said ‘Andrew’”
“He said ‘That’s all?’”
“I said, of course, “Josh, Christian, draft picks.’”
“He said ‘No Pau?’”
“I said ‘No Pau.’”
“And he jumped out of his chair and hugged me.”