Pressure is on Mitch Kupchak
LOS ANGELES -- Mitch Kupchak is normally quiet this time of year. Alone with his thoughts. The risks and rewards of standing pat or making changes churning in his gut.
But this year feels different. This year, he already has put his team on notice that he might have to make changes and wondered aloud whether the Los Angeles Lakers have hit "rock bottom."
None of what he said would make Mark Cuban's Twitter feed or even one of George Steinbrenner's press releases, of course, but for a guy who has dutifully taken as much public flak as Kupchak has over the years, his public comments in the past month have been striking.
He admitted to being frustrated when I caught up with him for a phone interview over All-Star weekend.
He sounded like a man who wants to do something but knows he might not be able to do it.
"You mean, like going to Cabo, but because I have to work I can't go?" he joked.
Yes, um, exactly like that.
"Look, nobody in the NBA is looking to help the Lakers," he continued. "And nine times out of 10 or 49 times out of 50, to get a good player you have to give up a good player. So keeping those thoughts in mind, you may not be able to do something that improves your team.
"That said, if we think there's something that would improve our team in the next week, then we'll probably do it."
The pressure on Kupchak is intense.
There are very few franchises in all of professional sports with expectations as high as they are for the Lakers. And there are very few seasons with as much riding on them as this franchise has riding on this one.
We have an owner that wants to win. He wants to accumulate trophies. He wants to have more than the Celtics have. We have a coach who is not into rebuilding. He wants to win this year and for his legacy. We have players, veteran players, who want to win this year. No one is looking two or three years down the road. The mindset of the organization is to win today.” -- Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak
"We have an owner that wants to win," Kupchak said. "He wants to accumulate trophies. He wants to have more than the Celtics have. We have a coach who is not into rebuilding. He wants to win this year and for his legacy. We have players, veteran players, who want to win this year.
"No one is looking two or three years down the road. The mindset of the organization is to win today."
So far, despite Kupchak's best-laid plans, the team hasn't been winning enough. Though the Lakers have the sixth-best record in the NBA, they have had too few high moments and too many low ones this season. Most recently, they dropped three straight road games heading into the All-Star break, including an embarrassing loss to the previously lifeless Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kupchak said he watched that game from Junior Seau's restaurant in San Diego, on his way to scout San Diego State's game against New Mexico.
"I don't remember what I had," he joked. "Myself and [assistant general manager] Ronnie Lester watched all but the last two minutes. Luckily, I had a game to go to."
I asked if he could find a way of explaining the loss.
"I can explain it, sure," he said. "But the bottom line is, that's a game you should win. If we're as good as we think we are, then we should win a game like that.
"What concerns me most is not so much a loss like that on the road, but a loss like that at home. We've had three or four of those this year. You really can't do that; you have to protect your court at home."
It's at this point that Kupchak goes quiet again, returning to the constant internal dialogue. Is there anything he can do to fix the team? Is there anything he should have done differently before the season? What's really going wrong? Is it worse to change the roster and risk messing it up? Or worse to stand pat?
All day long, all season long, his thoughts ping-pong between these questions.
"Honestly, only when we were able to win the last game of each of the last two years, there was a moment, a great moment of sigh and relief," he said.
"But within minutes, people are coming up to you, executives and owners, saying, 'Hey, are we going to do it again next year? Let's do a three-peat.'
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"When you have a team that you expect to perform at a high level, and then you do, it's not like you were caught off guard. It's more like, 'Wow, we did it. That feels great.' A moment of relief. But then all of a sudden you're thinking of the pressure of trying to repeat or three-peat or improve on what you did the year before, and that's just kind of how it is."
He does not ask for sympathy on this point; he knew the kind of job he was signing up for when Jerry West handed him the keys 11 years ago.
Kupchak eats alone in the press room most game nights. Occasionally, Lakers team doctor Steve Lombardo will join him. But mostly he eats alone, left to his thoughts, the legacies of the franchise and the head coach and the generation's brightest star weighing on his mind.
"We're not playing our best basketball and that's of concern," he said bluntly.
But he finishes each meal with a cup of soft-serve ice cream; perhaps a quiet sign that he might be an optimist, after all.
"If there's something we feel can significantly improve the team, then we'll explore it. But we know this group is capable and that's more than half the battle. Now it's just a matter of getting them to do it."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.