EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Mitch Kupchak writes the Los Angeles Lakers’ roster with a marker on a white board in his office. On Friday morning, the general manager decided it was time to formally erase Kobe Bryant.
Kupchak took an eraser to Bryant’s name. It didn’t move.
“I guess at some point, the marker just stays,” Kupchak said with a laugh.
The Lakers are trying to begin life after Bryant, but nothing about the process is easy. Kobe carried this franchise to remarkable heights, but he left it at the bottom.
“It is hard to close the book on this chapter, but it has come to the point that we have to do it,” Kupchak said. “It’s something I don’t think we’ll ever see again, if you put it all together. One player, 20 years.”
Bryant dominated the Lakers’ payroll, offense and public image for much of the past two decades, including a $25 million salary and a ravenous shot selection in his final season. The third-leading scorer in NBA history scored 60 points on 50 shots in his last game Wednesday, but the electric victory ended the Lakers’ worst season ever at 17-65.
An iconic franchise must redefine itself after Bryant’s retirement. For the first time together, Kupchak and owner Jim Buss must figure out how to build a contender while working under the Hollywood spotlight that constantly shines on this team – and without the shade provided by Kobe.
“We’ve never had this many young players on the team at the same time, and there’s a price to pay for that,” Kupchak said. “The only way to move on after a player has played 20 years is to hope you can get some young players to build around.”
Indeed, the Lakers have a core of youthful talent after drafting D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. over the past two years. If they finish the May 17 draft lottery in the top three, they will keep their pick and add another major talent in June.
Kupchak realizes the remaining Lakers wouldn’t be an immediate playoff contender in the fall, and he intends to supplement the youngsters with free-agent talent. The Lakers could sign two free agents to maximum contracts after the removal of the combined $40.5 million paid to Bryant and Roy Hibbert this season.
But the Lakers don’t have much to offer veterans outside of that money, a decent young core and this franchise’s high profile – which repelled more big names than it attracted while Bryant still was in town.
Dwight Howard spurned the Lakers in 2013, Pau Gasol followed him out the door in 2014, and no high-profile names signed up last summer. Kupchak chooses to be optimistic, hoping a couple of big-ticket free agents could be attracted to the Lakers’ mystique and promise without having to cede so much to Bryant.
“This offseason in some ways will be more difficult, and in some ways will be easier,” Kupchak said. “We do feel this year we have a lot more assets on our team than we did last year, the last two years.”
Coach Byron Scott expects to return to the Lakers next season despite presiding over the two worst years in their history. The former Lakers guard is 38-126, and the fans’ considerable displeasure has been focused largely on him.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I roll with the punches. (Fans) are not in there every day. They’re not in there in practice. They have no clue. To be honest, I’m much smarter than all of them when it comes to basketball.”
Kupchak plans to meet with Scott and Buss for lunch in a few days to discuss their options. Kupchak made no guarantees, but he clearly looks favorably on Scott’s willingness to accept a daunting job two years ago.
“I think Byron has done an excellent job under the circumstances that he’s had to deal with,” Kupchak said. “This year in particular was a difficult year for a coach to wade his way through.”
No matter how jarring this summer might be, the Lakers must move on. Even in Kupchak’s office.
When the eraser failed to remove Bryant’s name, he laughed – but then got out a spray cleaner and a cloth.
“The name is off the board,” Kupchak said.