Mitch Kupchak says he must explore every opportunity to improve the Los Angeles Lakers, even if Kobe Bryant doesn’t like it.
The Lakers general manager issued a statement Monday night in response to Bryant’s criticism of the club brass over the haze of uncertainty surrounding Pau Gasol. The 7-foot Spanish star is having the lowest-scoring season of his career amid rampant speculation about his departure in a trade ever since the Lakers attempted to move him for Chris Paul before the season.
After Sunday night’s loss at Phoenix, Bryant said he wanted Kupchak to decide whether Gasol would be traded or not. Kupchak responded with a terse one-paragraph statement before Monday’s 103-92 win against Portland.
”As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player,” said Kupchak, a former Lakers center.
”Nonetheless, as General Manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come,” Kupchak said. ”To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans.”
Bryant said Sunday he hopes the Lakers won’t trade Gasol, who is averaging 16.6 points and 10.7 rebounds while failing to make the All-Star team for the first time in four years. Although the Lakers were 18-13 and sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference heading into the Trail Blazers’ visit, they’ve been inconsistent in their first season under coach Mike Brown, with a 5-11 road record and several embarrassing losses along the way.
Bryant is the NBA’s leading scorer with 29 points per game, but he’s worried about Gasol, saying it’s tough for the four-time All-Star to ”immerse himself completely into games when he’s hearing trade talk every other day.”
Gasol doesn’t want to leave Los Angeles, and he acknowledged he’s thinking about the March 15 trade deadline. He hasn’t spoken directly to Kupchak about his future since the Lakers’ preseason attempt to deal Gasol to Houston in a three-team trade for Paul was rejected by the NBA.
Yet Gasol’s numbers are only slightly lower than last season’s averages, and Brown attributes much of that slight decline to the improvement of center Andrew Bynum, who made his first All-Star team while averaging 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds.
”I know there’s been a surge from Andrew Bynum that wasn’t there in the past, so Pau does not get the same amount of touches in the post that he has in the past,” Brown said.
While Bryant and Kupchak addressed each other through the media, Brown professed ignorance about the latest kerfuffle in Bryant’s rocky relationship with the Lakers’ management, saying he hadn’t even read Bryant’s comments. The new coach had no interest in getting involved, either.
”I don’t plan on going to talk to him,” Brown said. ”That discussion is done between Mitch and Kobe. … It’s not my place to address Kobe about trades. I don’t have much to do with trades on this team.”
Even with this round of public sparring, the Lakers have won seven of 11 since late January.
Although Bryant might be bothered by the Lakers’ machinations, he was angry in previous years when the Lakers didn’t make trades to improve the club, even demanding a trade himself in 2007. A few months later, the Lakers acquired Gasol and immediately made a run to three straight NBA finals and back-to-back league titles.
Metta World Peace is no stranger to displeasure about trade rumors. Back when he was Ron Artest, he sparred with the Indiana Pacers’ management over rumors about his eventual departure to Sacramento.
”You can’t really question (Kupchak), because he’s looking out for the Lakers, and he does a great job,” World Peace said. ”That’s his job, and we’re supposed to go play.”