The Los Angeles Lakers already have fired one head coach in this disappointing season, but general manager Mitch Kupchak isn’t placing all the blame for the team’s 17-24 start on the current one.
“Without a doubt, we have utmost confidence in Mike (D’Antoni) as a coach,” Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview Tuesday from Memphis. “I think if you spoke to him, his vision on Day 1 was dramatically different than it is today. It’s the coach’s job to adjust and to make changes. Sometimes a player is just not going to fit. Sometimes a coach has to make changes and compromise in the way he’s done things and I think that’s what Mike is going through right now is just the process.”
The Lakers have hit the midway point of the season riding a three-game losing skid as some of the promises made in D’Antoni’s introductory news conference in November are starting to ring hollow.
D’Antoni claimed the team should “easily” average 110-115 points per game under his guidance. They’ve crossed the 110-point threshold just eight times in the 31 games since he took over, going 5-3.
At the time of D’Antoni’s hiring, Kupchak said the new coach’s system was “more suited to the talent” on the Lakers than Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense, and yet several players have had a difficult time fitting in — Dwight Howard has sniped publicly about his lack of post-up and shot attempts, Pau Gasol has balked at accepting his role off the bench and free agent acquisitions Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks have both had to endure strings of DNP-CDs (Did Not Play — Coaching Decision) under D’Antoni.
Yet, Kupchak said D’Antoni’s shuffling of the roster is evidence that the coach is willing to change and try new things in order to try to start winning.
“It’s not like he started a week or two ago trying to figure this thing out,” Kupchak said. “He’s been searching for combinations now for probably six-to-eight weeks. Understandably, I think the longer the season goes the more is at stake and the bigger hole you dig, the more dramatic your adjustments or your take on coaching has to become. I think that’s what he’s doing. He’s grabbing every rabbit out of the hat trying to look for something that works.”
While Kupchak is continuing to support the coach, the disappointment of the Lakers being out of the playoff picture with 41 games left to play is wearing on the Lakers’ GM.
“You don’t want to get too emotional one way or the other, but, we’re halfway through now,” Kupchak said. “Quite frankly, we’ve dug a hole and I think it’s frustrating for everybody. It’s certainly not what anybody or everybody expected halfway through the season.”
Kupchak singled out the Lakers’ effort, or lack thereof, as the most frustrating part to see.
“I’m a little bit concerned about our effort,” Kupchak said. “I’d like to see better effort on the court. When the ball is not bouncing your way, when shots aren’t going in, you just can’t seem to get a break, the one thing you can control on the court is your effort and loose balls and running the floor, defending, offensive rebounding. I think back to the Miami game and I have that vision of LeBron (James) diving on that ball at midcourt. That’s effort. It’s natural when things get tough to hesitate and be unsure, lose confidence. That’s one thing that we can’t let happen. We have to maintain our confidence and our effort more than anything has to be at an all-time to get through this period.”
Kupchak is well aware of the Feb. 21 trade deadline looming if the team decides it needs to pursue a move if that confidence wanes and that effort fails to improve.
“We’ve got a little bit (less) than a month,” Kupchak said. “Typically, it’s unusual, although there was a trade today (between Memphis and Cleveland), it’s unusual if things heat up five or four weeks out. Typically, as you approach the trade deadline, people get serious and they really begin to understand and know their team and they have a pretty good feel of what’s out there.
“So, I don’t think we’re at the point where you say, ‘It’s time for a trade,’ and a trade happens in 3-4 days. That’s just not how this league works. I read somebody somewhere a week or so ago said, ‘This is a deadline-oriented league,’ and I think that’s true even though there are exceptions. That’s certainly one way to address the problem, to look into changing players.”
What’s tricky for Kupchak is that he’s not convinced making a trade or signing a free agent would act as a cure-all for the Lakers’ funk.
“Part of the frustrating thing about this season to date is that I just can’t, or we just can’t, put our finger on the problem,” Kupchak said. “We mentioned a bunch of them and even getting through the injuries and the (roster) changes and the coaching changes and you just try look at the players and how they fit together, is there something that’s missing? I could look at our group and nitpick and say that we could use something here or a better shooter there, but the bottom line is that the group as whole, we have not performed to the level of our ability.
“It’s not like we don’t have a player at a certain position and if we added a player — an eighth guy or a ninth guy — all of the sudden our record is going to go from 17 and whatever it is to 30-11. That’s not going to happen by adding a bench shooter or a defensive player. You know what I mean? That’s not going to happen. We’re underachieving for other reasons, not because we’re missing a bench player. Certainly you can add a bench player and become a better team, or hopefully a better team, but that’s not the reason why our record is what it is. We should be better than our record says we are. But there’s a saying in this league, and I’m sure you’ve heard this saying, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ ”
The Lakers’ record of just 2-7 over their past nine games says that the team is getting worse, but Kupchak believes it’s just been more of the same.
“I’m not sure there have been recent struggles,” Kupchak said. “We’ve struggled from Day 1. It’s not like we played good ball and then all of the sudden the last three to four weeks, we’re starting to struggle. We have struggled from Day 1 and it’s frustrating for everybody.”
That frustration will linger until the Lakers start to play up to their capabilities.
“We’ll just have to figure it out,” Kupchak said. “There’s no end to this. It’s not like if it’s not figured out in a week it comes to a conclusion. It’s just a process. We just got to keep on working at it and figure it out. It’s basketball.”