EL SEGUNDO, CA — The heat is on the Lakers as basketball’s most popular franchise tries to recover from a devastating injury to one of the game’s all-time greats, and the not-so-surprising defection of a potential Hall of Famer who was thought to be the next face of the franchise.
Nobody’s seat is toastier than that of General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who met with reporters Wednesday in a sweltering media room at the Lakers’ practice facility.
It was at least 85 degrees as Kupchak sat down in front of the microphones and cameras to answers questions about Kobe Bryant’s continuing recovery from last April’s Achilles tendon tear, and why Dwight Howard left paradise for a lot less money than he would have earned in L.A.
Keeping his cool, Kupchak said he feels Bryant will make a successful comeback and whenever he steps on the court “you won’t be able to look at him and say he was hurt,” said the Laker GM.
“He will be healthy, but he’s 35-years-old and his game has been evolving over the past few years. Not because of the injury but because of the type of team we have, he might decide to do things differently. Get the other players more involved.
But even if Kobe becomes a more permanent facilitator, with the game on the line, Kupchak expects Kobe to be the Bryant of old.
“If we’re down by two or three,” he said, “I know that Kobe will take the last shot. He may be limping but he will take the last shot.”
And the game’s best closer most likely will make it.
One contest the 17-year vet didn’t win came this summer, though, when he was unable to persuade Howard that his best career choice was to remain a Laker. Bryant, Kupchak and head coach Mike D’Antoni were among the Laker personnel who met with Howard in a contentious meeting just before he signed with Houston. He reportedly didn’t want to play with Bryant or in D’Antoni’s system, so he did something not many do and left the Lakers when his contract was up.
According to Kupchak, though, it really doesn’t matter why Howard decided to join the Rockets after his only year as a Laker. The fact is, Howard left and the Lakers went to Plan B.
“Obviously, (Dwight staying) was the plan we were hoping for,” Kupchak said. “But it didn’t work out that way. I can’t tell you why he decided to sign with Houston. The one thing I can tell you is that he made his choice and we’ve moved on.”
Howard’s decision — while not as polarizing as LeBron James’ farewell to Cleveland a few years earlier — did leave Laker fans wondering how their perennial championship contender would even be good enough to make the playoffs.
Fair question, Mr. GM?
“Sure it is,” Kupchak said. “I understand how our fans feel. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there about our roster and how it will perform together, especially if Kobe is out for longer than expected. But the positive thing is that everyone — with the exception of Kobe — will come to camp healthy and we think we’ve put together a pretty good team.
“We’ve still got Kobe at some point, Pau (Gasol), Steve Nash, (Steve) Blake and we added Chris Kaman and Jordan (Farmar).
“Now we just have to wait and see how it all comes together.”