For nearly 15 years, the face of Los Angeles Lakers’ management has been one that many have learned to admire, and sometimes label as a savior.
Mitch Kupchak, who played for Los Angeles from 1981-86, is given tons of credit for helping keep the Lakers relevant in the Western Conference for over a decade. Taking over for Jerry West in 2000 after he moved on to manage the Memphis Grizzlies, Kupchak has been dealing in the front office longer than people realize. With one year remaining on his contract, owner Jim Buss and the Lakers decided to award Kupchak with another multiyear extension to keep him running the show.
While the contract specifics weren’t released, it guarantees that Kupchak will be around to help guide the franchise through the final two years of Kobe Bryant‘s contract. Yes, the harshly criticized, $48.5 million dollar deal that I’ve deemed the superstar deserves.
Of course, with Kupchak’s tenure as General Manger, you could get into the particulars. This unacceptable rubbish of a season will be just the second season the Lakers have missed the playoffs with him in the position, the first coming in 2004-05. During that debacle, Los Angeles managed to accumulate a 34-48 record with Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich throwing in the towel after 41 games due to health concerns.
Since then, he’s been wheeling and dealing within the organization, much of which has translated into great moves for the Lakers’ chances at winning championships. With more focus on what’s transpired in recent history for most of the younger generation out there, it’s worth noting what Kupchak has fought through since the 2007-08 season.
Nearing the 2008 trade deadline, with Bryant contemplating the idea of bolting Los Angeles since there was nobody to play Robin to his Batman, Kupchak pulled the trigger on a deal to bring Pau Gasol to Hollywood. The deal was an absolute steal at the time, as the Lakers sent draft bust Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, rights to Marc Gasol and two future draft picks to Memphis in return for the Spaniard, who was averaging 18.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting at the time. Gasol wanted to be on a title contender, and Bryant needed a big man capable of catching the ball and making a play. Brown didn’t fit that bill, and Stephen A. Smith made that quite clear.
You can also take a trip down memory lane and stop at last season, the 2012-13 campaign that featured an imbalance of management decisions. In Summer 2012, Kupchak and the Lakers executed not one, but two blockbuster deals that were considered re-shaping moves for the franchise. First, on July 4, 2012, Los Angeles completed a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns for veteran point guard Steve Nash, who bolted out of the desert after the days without Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t look promising. We’ve witnessed mere flashes of Nash’s physical ability, but nothing longer than a two or three game stretch. When Kupchak brought Nash along, you can’t account for the freak accident of the leg fracture the point guard suffered in just his second game in a Lakers’ jersey. From that point forward, it’s been nerve root irritation over and over, and nothing but a pot of bad luck. At the time, all you do as a manager is believe in the mastermind skills of Nash in terms of being a floor general, and there was nothing wrong with the deal for that very reason. Except maybe the $9 million per year Nash is receiving at this point.
Or how about the Dwight Howard saga?
In a three-team trade with Philadelphia and Orlando, Kupchak and the Lakers received Dwight Howard, widely regarded as the top center in today’s game. The deal meant parting ways with Andrew Bynum, who appears to have shot knees anyway.
Let’s get the nonsense out of the way. There’s only a handful of people that were aware Howard wouldn’t be 100 percent healthy for majority of the season due to the back issues, and one of those individuals was former Magic head coach, Stan Van Gundy. At the end of the day, taking the gamble on Howard was worth it, even though we didn’t begin seeing the effects of his dominant presence until mid-way through the year. Was it still worth pulling the trigger knowing Howard is having the time of his life in Houston as we speak?
You better believe it.
It’s the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that normally excels after pulling off deals or luring superstar talents. You fall in love with the idea of having a starting core of Bryant, Nash, Howard, Gasol, and Metta World Peace. One cannot argue that, on paper, that’s one of the most attractive starting lineups in history for a coach, player, and general manager. Kupchak set the stage for a massive return to title contention, but didn’t imagine the tempers would flare between Howard and Bryant, who didn’t believe the center had the qualities and mindset to be a persistent winner.
Where Kupchak does get a newspaper slap to the face, however, is the personnel hiring to coach that unit.
Mike D’Antoni. Italian legend. Pringles spokesperson. Which ever name fits your liking, the words “Lakers’ head coach” aren’t supposed to follow. Kupchak and the Buss Family allowed it to happen, however.
We’ve heard the story numerous times. Legendary Phil Jackson sat waiting in his living room, shining the 11th ring before calling it a night, when the Lakers decided to make him giggle. Telling Jackson they had passed on him in order to give D’Antoni the job in November 2012 ranks near the top of biggest mistakes for this franchise …. ever. Especially considering after leaving for Houston, Howard smiled when asked if Jackson’s hiring would have kept him a Laker. Utter failure.
What’s done is done, and Kupchak has been around to witness five championships by the Lakers. While he heavily contributed to the winning of the 15th and 16th banners hanging in Staples Center, he’s got his work cut out for him in the Black Mamba’s two remaining years. In order to help Bryant go out on top comparable to his NFL idol Ray Lewis, the most important phone calls of Kupchak’s career will have to be made sooner rather than later.
But, there’s not a lot of reasons for Lakers fans to worry. Isn’t that what Kupchak has been able to do for 10+ years ….. put the team in position to succeed?
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for 8 Points, 9 Seconds and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter. You can contact Shane via email: [email protected]