End Of The Season Report Card: Management

 —  April 21, 2005

There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure to take one with a heart.

-Lao Tzu

I was worried at first when I heard Mitch Kupchak say there was no set blueprint for the rebuilding of the Lakers. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw a Zen-like wisdom in the idea of being flexible — there is not one path back to the championship. It can be done running or through Phil’s slowed-down triangle, and with Kobe as the core player you have options because his game has so many facets.

I’m less concerned with what specific actions Mitch takes than that there are actions — he is on the clock.

I’m not sure we’ve ever really seen what Mitch can do. When he took over for Jerry West it was Phil Jackson that ultimately had the say over player moves. Mitch was the guy in charge when Karl Malone and Gary Payton to put on Laker uniforms — a move we all thought guaranteed a championship — but again that was more about Phil, Kobe and Shaq than it was Mitch. Then, after last season, owner Jerry Buss tells Mitch to trade Shaq and make sure he did it fast enough to resign Kobe, tying his hands to make a good deal and forcing him to take the best of bad options.

The Mitch/Jerry Buss tandem did make one big mistake this past off-season — saying they wanted a running team then hiring Rudy T. As was pointed out during the season, the penetrate-and-dish-for-three offense of Rudy T. was exactly what should have been expected. Rudy T. was an odd coaching choice for what the Lakers’ stated goals and talent were — with a point/forward like Lamar, plus Kobe, Butler and Mihm this is a team that could have run.

That said, Mitch and no one else expected Rudy T. would have no apparent defensive system and then would need to step down because the stress of the job was too much.

So my grade for the past season is an Incomplete.

Now they have to retake the class — they have the chance to start the rebuilding and do it right. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy.

As I and many others have preached since day one, this rebuilding must start with a coach and a team philosophy. In a radio interview on 570 am yesterday afternoon, Mitch said that Phil Jackson’s name was at the top of the list of candidates, although that was the only name on the list he discussed.

Whether it’s Phil or someone else, who is the coach and what offensive and defensive systems will be run will determine Mitch’s next moves — the point guard Phil would want for the triangle is different than what Flip Saunders would want if he wants to make the Lakers a running team. Or, in another example, Phil very likely would want Luke Walton back, other coaches may be lukewarm.

Whatever moves the Lakers make, Mitch said to look more for trades than free agent signings. This makes sense — the Lakers already have more than $69 million in salary committed for next year and this is not New York, they aren’t just going to add salary.

The big question with trades is: Do you break up the trio of Kobe, Lamar and Caron? To get something in a trade the Lakers are going to have to give up something, and if they want a significant trade Lamar or Butler will have to go. The end of the year play between Kobe and Caron has many Laker fans thinking it is Lamar who should go — but it is Butler that is by far the more tradable asset. Odom will make $10 million next year and is signed through 2009, Butler is in the last year of a deal paying him $2.4.

Last year contracts are the coin of the realm for trades in today’s NBA, and unlike at last year’s trading deadline Mitch has several at his disposal now — Atkins, Butler, George, Vlade, Slava and Jumaine Jones. Slava and Vlade have little trade value, but the rest could be moved more easily — certainly more easily than Odom.

Kupchak also will have his best draft position ever — likely 10th. By the way, if you’re dreaming of Chris Paul running the point for the Lakers, know that they have a 1.4% chance of the top pick and a 4% chance of landing in the top three. It’s not going to happen — can you imagine the outcry and wailing that the system is fixed if the Lakers got the top pick?

The best mock drafts out there have the Lakers getting someone like Chris Taft out of Pittsburgh (an Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh at the four — $1 million body and a 5¢ head). Most likely the Lakers will get a guy who can contribute off the bench but not be a starter or star.

All of this is a lot to ask of Mitch, to rebuild this team back into a good playoff team in just one year, especially in the very deep Western Conference.

But that’s the job he signed up for, and if he wants to keep it he’s going to have to get a passing grade next year.