Mitch Kupchak embodied confidence when he wore a basketball uniform for Brentwood High School in the early 1970s. He was the best big man on Long Island, and the 6-9 Kupchak surely realized his potential on, and later, off the court, where he became the general manager of the Lakers in 2000.
Self-assuredness is a trait Kupchak, 58, clings to nowadays in Los Angeles, where the stars are not aligning as expected. The notion of an NBA title, prompted with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, has dissolved into the lone talking point of whether the Lakers can even make the playoffs. They are 22-26, 10th in the Western Conference, 3 1/2 games removed from the eighth playoff spot.
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"I think there's still time, but I wouldn't say there's plenty of time," Kupchak said recently from his office in Los Angeles. "I don't think anybody anticipated that we'd be in late January [four] games under .500. I don't think anybody expected for us to have the record today that we do."
The rocky season started with coach Mike Brown's firing after a 1-4 start. After a brief scenario of Phil Jackson rescuing the season, the Lakers turned to former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. But the losing continued, especially on the road, where the Lakers are 7-16. They play 18 of their remaining 34 games on the road, including Tuesday night against the Nets.
"We're very happy with Mike D'Antoni," Kupchak said. "I think when he took the job I think he thought Nash [fractured left leg] might be out a week or two. Not two months. Getting everybody on the same page took a little longer than expected. Not to say it's been smooth sailing, that's for sure."
Asked about his remaining options to salvage this season, Kupchak said, "We will not make a trade. We will not trade Dwight Howard. We have no intention of making a trade. It's unlikely that we'll make any trade with any of our principal players. To make another change at this time of the year being behind the eight-ball like we are, I think that would just make it more difficult. The talent is there. We have to find our way."
But there is no denying that the Lakers, who have a $100-million payroll and a tab of nearly $30 million in luxury tax, have been a huge disappointment.
"Since the day Jerry West retired [as GM], I felt nothing but heat," said Kupchak, who has a year left on his contract. "This kind of job, you're married to it. You live and die on wins and losses. You always feel the heat. I always feel heat. But I've got great confidence in my ability and my experience. I've been doing this a long time."
Howard has battled shoulder problems and has had trouble adjusting to D'Antoni's system. Nash, 39, missed 24 games with the fractured leg. But the larger issue may be the age-old problem of chemistry -- or just being old. Kobe Bryant, 34, said as much after a frustrating loss last month, and he found agreement from Pau Gasol, 32.
But Kupchak disagrees.
"Old? If you're looking to make excuses, I suppose," he said. "I put this team together with Jim Buss. We don't think they're too old. We have great experience. When I look at our team and I make a list of things that may contribute to our record to date, age is not one of them. I think seven or eight games from now we'll have more answers. We're trying to get into the playoffs and make a run."