When you’re a part of the Lakers organization, there is always a legend that you’re compared to or a legacy to live up to. If you’re a player like Andrew Bynum, be prepared to hear about Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq. Or if you’re Kobe Bryant, you better understand the history of Baylor, West, and Magic and be prepared to have your accomplishments measured up against theirs. If you’re a coach, even one with as many skins on the wall as Phil Jackson, there are still fans and media members that will talk about the four titles and multiple Finals’ appearances of Pat Riley. And then there’s anyone who holds the title of GM. Jerry West, while a fantastic, once in a generation player for the Lakers, will consistently be remembered as the architect of multiple championship teams. He’s the man that built Showtime, signed Shaq, and had to have Kobe. He’s the man that (seemingly) won every trade, mastered the salary cap, and made the Lakers the preeminent basketball franchise of the past quarter century. So, for Mitch Kupchak, following is these footsteps has not been an easy ride. Ever since he took on the Lakers’ GM position he’s lived in a fifty foot shadow trying fill size twenty five shoes. But today, with the team that he built destined for another deep playoff run and considered a strong favorite to win the title, it’s time for this man to stand on his own and for him to receive the credit he’s earned.
But before we look at present day, let’s take a look at the path taken to get to this point. For a long time, Mitch Kupchak was the guy that couldn’t get the job done. He was the man who couldn’t build a team. He was the butt of fans jokes and the victim of media scorn. It seemed like Mitch would never measure up to the man we called the Logo. Plus there was always someone more than willing to tell us how he wasn’t up to the job. This was our GM? I mean, this was the guy that traded Shaq. The man that thought it was a good idea to exchange Caron Butler for Kwame Brown. The guy that signed Smush Parker and then kept him. The guy that made a lottery pick out of an unproven straight from highschool center (who had only played a season and a half of varsity basketball) over more proven college players who could have helped the team right away. Needless to say, there was definitely reason for concern about the direction of this franchise.
But what none of us understood was that Mitch had a vision of a team and he had the patience to execute his plan. Throughout all the criticism that he received, he never wavered from the path that he laid out to rebuild and transition the Lakers from a Shaq-centric team to one that could compete with Kobe Bryant at it’s nexus. We just had to wait for it to all come together. Early in his tenure (and in support of a team built around Shaq) he drafted Brian Cook, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic. To add to those players (and after the trade of the Diesel) he also drafted Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf, Javaris Crittenton, and Marc Gasol. (On a side note – Notice a trend here? Besides Cook and Critt all these players are currently playing pretty well on their respective teams. Mitch can draft some good players.) He also made a couple of key free agent signings in adding veterans Mo Evans and RadMan that would help us win games by improving our rotation. And while only some of these players are currently with the team, the ones that aren’t have been used as pawns in trades that have vastly improved the quality of our roster. And ironically, after being skewered for the quality of players received in his trade of Shaq, winning trades is what Kupchak has become known for. Cook and Evans would become Trevor Ariza. Recently, RadMan became Adam Morrison and ShanWOW. And the crown jewel of his wheeling and dealing was turning Kwame, Crittenton, Marc Gasol, a future draft pick (that would become Darrel Arthur), and a stack of Jerry Buss’ poker winnings into Pau Gasol. Not only have these trades given us a better and more balanced team, but they’ve also cleared some payroll and given us a chance to re-sign Trevor and Odom and keep a championship core together.
And he’s done it all through adversity. We all know Lakers fans are accustomed to cheering for a contending team. But in the aftermath of the Shaq trade, this franchise was anything but a contender. The Lakers went from winning titles to missing the playoffs completely. And when we did make the post season we ended up losing gut wrenching series’ in the first round. This not only led to fan unrest, but it also led to turmoil and complaints from it’s best player. Kobe’s trade demands and open pining for a return of Jerry West to his old GM’s post were only the opening salvo in a seemingly unsalvageable situation. His questioning of Mitch’s decision making in a caught on tape parking lot performance was the icing on the cake that signalled to many people that Kupchak was not in control of this team. But through it all, our GM displayed cool under fire and acted with patience. (As usual) Reed made this point perfectly in a recent email exchange:
(Mitch) was severely attacked by everyone (us included) in the initial post-Shaq era. In the critical summer of 2007 he faced pressure from every corner to blow up the team and trade Bynum, Kobe, Odom – anyone. We just wanted change and no one believed the team as it stood could ever amount to anything (Kobe included). Despite all of that, and with his job on the line, he held firm and didn’t cave in when nothing worthwhile presented itself. It’s probably difficult to overstate how much patience and confidence that took — and he was absolutely right, as we quickly discovered. Imagine a team with Kobe and Jermaine O’neal as the cornerstones. Or a team led by Deng instead of Kobe. So, some of my biggest props to him are as a result of what he did not do, as opposed to what he did do.
Read that last sentence again. Mitch had every reason in the world to dump everyone on this roster and rebuild with young players, picks – whatever he could get by trading any of the pieces on the roster. Those same pieces, (besides Gasol) that currently make up the core of a championship contender. But he didn’t. Can you imagine the unrest we, as Lakers fans, would be going through right now if Kobe was in Chicago? What we’d be like if we were watching Bynum flourish in New Jersey? What we’d be missing if we swapped the versatility of Odom for the declining skills of Jermaine? What our cap situation would look like? I, for one, don’t even want to fathom it. And we really only have one person to thank for that. And he’s the same guy that, just a couple of seasons ago, many fans wanted fired.
As I write this it’s only a few days before the playoffs start. We all believe that this team is on the verge of something special. We just completed a sixty five win regular season and won the Western Conference by double digit games. We’ve got the one of the best players of his generation, two supremely talented power forwards, the second best young center in the game, and several excellent complimentary role players. We are finally back to being a contending team. And since there’s a credit crisis in this country, I’d like to give a little bit to the guy who rarely gets any – So, thank you Mitch Kupchak. You’ve made the franchise we love a winner again. And come playoff time, I think that’s all we could have hoped for.