Kupchak doesn't expect major changes in offseason
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Phil & Kobe reunion worked out well, with no apparent glitches. And outside of an ugly finish, so did the Los Angeles Lakers' season.
As for the future, Lakers fans probably shouldn't expect much roster shuffling or a championship contender very soon. The hope is, a title shot isn't too far away.
"We were all about getting to the playoffs and make some noise in the playoffs. We met our goal," coach Phil Jackson said Monday during a break from conducting exit interviews with his players.
The Lakers went 45-34 for an 11-game improvement over the previous season, and took a 3-1 lead over the Phoenix Suns before losing the last three games to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
"We're pleased. We maintained from Day One that was achievable," general manager Mitch Kupchak said of a return to the postseason.
But Game 7 was ugly from start to finish -- a 121-90 victory by the Suns.
"They're holding themselves responsible," Jackson said of his players. "I have to make them let go of that. The first four games were pretty good."
And the last three weren't.
"We think our future is very bright," Kupchak said. "The good news, really, is this team is together. You cannot predict a major change.
"This is not a stellar year where you're going to see eight to 10 stellar free agents available. We're in the exact same boat as 25 or 26 other teams are in. We have a big window two years from now."
That that might be when something big happens in free agency that makes the Lakers viable championship contenders.
"I wouldn't discount it a year or two down the road. I'm not prepared to say that, although I think that's a possibility," Kupchak said of returning to elite status.
Added Jackson: "Usually you have to go two or three rounds of the playoffs before you can compete for a championship.
"We have some core ingredients that are pretty good."
The biggest question mark is in the backcourt. Bryant's 35.4-point average was the NBA's best in 19 years, but the youth and inexperience of starter Smush Parker and top reserve Sasha Vujacic hurt the Lakers against the Suns. "The question is, are we good enough at that position? Are we experienced enough? Both of them made strides this season," Jackson said. "We don't believe we have to have a superstar come in for us to advance [in the playoffs]. We know we have enough physical talent, we have enough size, we have enough expertise to compete."
Kupchak said he didn't anticipate a major trade this offseason, but he acknowledged a possible need for an upgrade in the backcourt.
The Lakers, well over the salary cap, have only three unrestricted free agents on their roster -- veterans Devean George and Jimmy Jackson and rookie Devin Green. George was a key reserve on this team.
"He's probably the one challenge we have during the offseason," Kupchak said. "Basically, the core of this team is intact."
George said he was going to explore free agency.
"I just let them know that I enjoyed being here and I'm open to coming back," he said.
Jackson, who coached the Lakers to three championships in five years, returned this season after a year off. He wrote a book slamming Bryant while he was gone, so there was intrigue upon his return. When training camp started, all eyes were in the record-setting coach and his star player. But no problems surfaced.
"We worked together really well this season," Jackson said. "It was remarkable, from Hawaii on. I think at first, it was like, 'How's this going to work?' He really took to the offense, where he was going to play in it. It was a remarkable year for him."
Jackson said Bryant did an especially good job with leadership.
"Kobe was a lot more personable for us this year, was great as a leader," teammate Brian Cook said. "A lot of people did a lot of growing up. Everybody got along from the standpoint of off the court -- just a great group of guys."
Bryant said he believes the Lakers grew up.
"When you go through a season like we went through and a playoff series like we went through, those are big steps in our development process," he said. "When we come back next season, you'll see a team that executes better, understands better, is better in pressure situations, is just mature."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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