Archives For August 2012

Lakers Countdown: At #5…

J.M. Poulard —  August 25, 2012

The 1990s gave us a new era of basketball as Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the decade and won three titles in a row on two separate occasions with Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets managing to win back-to-back titles in between the Bulls’ three-peats.

Then, the 2000s hit, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers also won three titles in a row and were then followed by Kobe Bryant’s Lakers who won titles in consecutive years to close out the decade.

It wasn’t always this way though. Repeating as champions had become seemingly impossible since the Boston Celtics had done it in 1969. But ultimately one team had to break through and do it.

Clocking in at the fifth spot in the Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…

The 1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers

Fresh off a title run at the end of the 1987 postseason, Lakers head coach Pat Riley decided to throw a monkey wrench into the celebration plans of his team by going on the record and guaranteeing that his team would repeat the following season.

Although winning the championship is usually enough to serve notice to other teams about which unit is the one to beat, it almost feels as though Riley wanted to make sure that everyone was well aware not only that his band of players had reached the mountaintop, but that they would do it again and that there was nothing the rest of the NBA could do about it.

How’s that for a bull’s eye?

And yet, with a roster loaded with talent and future Hall of Fame caliber players, it’s easy to see why the charismatic and fierce head coach could go on the record and make such a proclamation.

The Lakers had not only the best point guard in the league, but the player that many agreed was the best in the NBA. In addition, the purple and gold also had arguably the best player in the history of the sport in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing next to a do it all forward in James Worthy and terrific finisher and shooter in Byron Scott.

And just for good measure, the Lakers had possibly the best defensive player in the association in Michael Cooper (he won the DPOY the year prior) as well as a terrific pair of big men in Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green that were versatile enough to run the floor, play in the half court and apply pressure on defense with Riley’s zone trap.

All the talent in the world.

Really, the only thing that could potentially derail this unit would have to be injuries and they would have to come in bunches to truly become problematic for Riley. Luckily for the Lakers, they faced some concerns on that front, but nothing truly major. Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Michael Cooper combined to miss 38 games during the course of the season.

They had a few minor bumps in the road, but the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 62-20 record, tops in the league during the 1987-88 season.

Indeed, they finished the regular season second in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency. Also, they sported a plus-5.8 average scoring margin during the regular season but this says very little about how they treated the 82-game grind despite the little bumps and bruises.

To know how good the Lakers were, one can point to their win streaks. Indeed, although they had some small five and six-game stretches where they always emerged victorious, they also knew when to turn it on and seize control of the regular season.

The 1987-88 Lakers started out the season with an eight-game win streak and then in early December went on a rampage until the middle of January, winning 15 games in a row. And just when things became dull for the team after a few losses, they turned things up once again in late January and won 10 consecutive contests and saw their streak end near the end of February.

The Lakers rounded up into form for the postseason with some good momentum and dispatched the San Antonio Spurs in three games in the first round.

The remainder of their playoff run would be the toughest one for any championship team in league history as the Los Angeles Lakers needed the full seven games in the Western Conference semifinals as well as the conference finals to advance to the title round.

With the NBA Finals set to take stage, the Lakers would have to dispatch a team that many saw as a bunch of basketball hooligans given their antics, physical play and intimidation tactics: the Detroit Pistons.

The team took their identity from their leader.

Isiah Thomas was a scrapper that never relented and that did anything and everything possible to gain an advantage over opponents and his teammates followed in bruising fashion. Their style of play earned them the moniker of Bad Boys.

The Pistons hit you on every drive to the basket, fought for every rebound and made sure to inflict as much punishment as possible when opponents went in for lay ups. With no flagrant fouls being called at the time, it gave Detroit a license to do everything short of murdering players in the paint.

Thus, the NBA Finals became the battle of Showtime versus the Bad Boys.

Detroit drew first blood by winning Game 1 at the Forum and then the Lakers bounced back by winning consecutive games by double digits. With the purple and gold now seemingly in control of the series, the Pistons went on to win Game 4 by 25 points and Game 5 by 10 points to take a huge 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles with a chance to clinch the title on the road.

Detroit would come close to getting champagne poured on them as they led Game 6 by three points with just about a minute left in the game but failed to close out the contest and instead watched the Lakers execute down the stretch with championship poise and steal the contest from the Bad Boys and set up a winner take all Game 7.

The finale would be a seesaw battle that would eventually lead the Lakers to the brink of a blowout but Detroit would claw back in the fourth quarter and make things interesting but ultimately falter down the stretch.

James Worthy would earn the Finals MVP with a monstrous triple-double performance in Game 7 in which he scored 36 points, snatched 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists.

The Los Angeles Lakers became the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat as champions and they did it with a flair for the dramatic.

Their regular season performance combined with their postseason run makes them one of the greatest Lakers teams of all time and thus worthy of the fifth spot in our countdown.

Why “only” fifth though?

The ’88 Lakers finished with an unimpressive 15-9 playoff record — no team has ever won the title with as many postseason losses — and were defeated by double figures a whopping six times during their playoff run. In addition, two of those six double-digit losses were by 25 points or more; which partly explains their seemingly low playoff average scoring margin of plus-2.5.

Nonetheless, Magic Johnson and his teammates will be remembered in the history books as the first team to repeat in 19 years as well as the franchise that paved the way for it to become a reality for the rest of the NBA.

While there’s not been an official announcement, all signs point to the Lakers bringing in Eddie Jordan as an assistant coach next season and implementing the Princeton Offense. We’ve touched on this topic some already and believe this will be a great step forward for the Lakers as a whole.

We’re not the only ones that think this is a positive step forward for the Lakers however. Over at Grantland, the great Sebastian Pruiti has a fantastic breakdown (including video) of how the Lakers’ stars will fit into the new offense, concluding with this take:

In my opinion, the Lakers are going to start running bits and pieces of this offense here and there in the early days of next season, working it in slowly. However, once the Lakers see how successful this offense is, and I do believe that it will be extremely successful, they will incorporate it more and more and you will see them running it at a high rate. I just think that an offense like this complements everyone on this team’s skill set, allowing each player to have success with a particular aspect of it.

I’m completely on board with the idea that as the team gets more comfortable, we’ll them run it more frequently as their base offense. And while Pruiti focuses mostly on the Lakers’ star players, I’d argue that we’ll see the bench players run the Princeton much more frequently in order to get the most out of the talent they’ll have on the floor.

Remember, one of the main reasons the Lakers’ bench struggled last year was because they often didn’t have the talent on the floor to produce the types of good looks the first team did with Kobe, Pau, and Bynum anchoring them. Instead, the Lakers often only had one or (sometimes) two of the their best offensive players on the floor and that led to sets breaking down more often with the final result being a forced look with the shot clock winding down. And while the Lakers have brought in more talented offensive players to help anchor their bench in Jamison and Meeks (more on this in a separate post), having the foundation of an offensive system to lean on will aid them greatly.

Pruiti isn’t the only one breaking down how the Princeton will fly with the new-look Lakers, however. Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown also put together a very good video breakdown of the offense, specifically focusing on what he calls the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash effect:

Furthermore, at his site, Nick adds more about how he envisions some of the key Lakers will fit into the offense:

With the kind of cutting the Princeton provides (so long as the Lakers execute it, ahem, Kobe), the opponents defense will be in a crucible. Whomever they help off of will lead to open shots for some of the best all around offensive players in the league. Expect Pau Gasol to have a resurgence this year, setting back screens and flaring out for high post jump shots, as well as an occasional post up when Dwight needs a rest. Kobe can really use the movement to his advantage to gain very deep post position which would make him virtually unstoppable.

These are all only projections, of course. But, the foundation of talent combined with offensive know-how is already in place with this Lakers’ group. More than half of the Lakers roster (Kobe, Ron, Pau, Jamison, Hill, Blake, Ebanks, and Meeks) have already played in a read and react system for either Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, or Eddie Jordan. That’s the entire expected rotation save for Nash and Howard (two players that can fit into most any offensive system well). I’ve little doubt that this group will be able to acclimate themselves to this offense and end up as one of the better offensive teams in the league.

It will take some time for the players to mesh and the coaches will have to find the right rotations and player combinations to maximize the team’s success. However, as Pruiti and Coach Nick detailed, the structure of the offense should be a good fit for these players and that foundation along with the smarts of the players should lead to positive results.

Lakers Countdown: At #6…

J.M. Poulard —  August 23, 2012

As we continue to rank the Los Angeles Lakers title teams, we take a look today at not only a great unit that won a championship, but one that shall forever be immortalized throughout Lakers and NBA history as the team gave the path to one of the National Basketball Association’s most iconic figures: Magic Johnson.

Without further ado, clocking in the sixth spot in our countdown…

The 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers

As the story goes, Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA title game and it propelled him to an incredible NBA career in which he was great from day one.

The story is often recited as such but that isn’t an entirely accurate depiction of reality.

Indeed, Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie in the 1979-80 season but he wasn’t seen as a savior or even as the team’s de facto point guard. Indeed, many wondered if he could actually play the position given his 6’9’’ frame and the requirements that went along with the position. In addition, the Lakers already had a great player in Norm Nixon playing the position for the team and he was more experienced at doing so in the professional ranks than the former Spartan.

Opposing coaches and general managers thought that Magic Johnson would be better suited to play forward and they weren’t entirely wrong given the star in the making’s gifts as a basketball player.

But the team instead chose to have him play in the backcourt with Norm Nixon with both players sharing point guard duties, although their relationship would often be tested during the course of the season as both players felt as though they could play the position best and thus did not require to share responsibilities. Mind you, by season’s end, they would realize that complemented each other perfectly.

Far be it for a team to face just one difficult situation in an 82-game campaign, the Lakers lost head coach Jack McKinney to a bicycle accident 14 games into the season. Assistant coach Paul Westhead was thus promoted to interim head coach and the task of directing the team fell square on his shoulders.

Westhead had two great ball handlers in Nixon and Johnson and thus favored the transition game much like McKinney but also deployed lineups in which Magic Johnson played at forward (small or power) given his rebounding prowess — he was the team’s second leading rebounder that season with 7.7 rebounds per game — and that allowed the Lakers to play Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper in the backcourt.

With Westhead pulling the strings, the Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with a 60-22 record. They sported the best offensive efficiency in the league during the 1979-80 season as well as the ninth best defensive efficiency.

Although the team was statistically dominant given their record and efficiency numbers, one could have expected them to flex their muscles a little more during the regular season.

At no point did the 1979-80 Lakers have a double-digit win streak during the course of the season, instead settling for multiple five and six-game winning streaks with their longest one of the season extending itself to seven games. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that the two best teams in the Western Conference other than the Lakers were the Phoenix Suns and Seattle Supersonics, which happened to be divisional foes that the purple and gold played a combined 12 times in the regular season.

The Lakers finished with a plus-5.9 average scoring margin during the regular season and faced off against the two best teams in the conference in the playoffs.

In the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns in the first three games of the series by a combined 15 points. Perhaps sensing they had the series won, the top seed in the west was blown out in Game 4 by 26 points; and then came back to win Game 5 at home.

The following series would have the Lakers face off against the Seattle Supersonics, who would steal home court advantage with a narrow 108-107 victory in Game 1, thanks in large part to Fred Brown and Gus Williams combining for 62 points. Just when it looked as though the Lakers might be in trouble, they reeled off four games in a row to propel themselves to the NBA Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers (59-23) their opponent to be.

It would prove to be an exciting championship round as both teams split the first four games, setting up an all too important Game 5 at the Forum.

Game 5 would go back and forth as Philadelphia and Los Angeles would trade back the lead, but the Lakers would gain some sort of control on the contest in the third quarter but would lose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a left ankle injury. The team would stay afloat just long enough to buy the six-time league MVP time to come back early in the fourth quarter to close out the game with 14 points in the period to complete his 40-point masterpiece and give his unit a 3-2 series advantage.

The victory came at a huge price, as Abdul-Jabbar would not be able to travel to Philadelphia for Game 6. Instead it was suggested he remain at home and get rest and treatment with the hope that he would be able to suit up for Game 7.

As good as that plan sounded — having Kareem play in Game 7 was seen as the best case scenario since few expected the Lakers to actually win Game 6 — Magic Johnson had better ideas. The promising guard had already proved to many that he could play at a high level in the NBA with his playmaking and scoring, as evidenced by his 18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and 7.3 assists per game on 53 percent field goal shooting that season; but few truly knew just how special he really was.

On May 14th, 1980, Magic Johnson started at center for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the title round and submitted arguably the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Johnson became a legend on that night by doing everything humanly possible on a basketball court. In fact, the only things Magic failed to accomplish was dance with the cheerleaders, provide color commentary and direct the halftime show. Other than that, Magic rebounded, scored, set up teammates, directed traffic, got out in transition and gave the team the boost it needed with its leading scorer injured.

Magic Johnson submitted 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals and helped the Lakers clinch the world title on this fateful night in Philadelphia. Jamaal Wilkes also poured in 37 points but the night belonged to the rookie, basically setting up the remainder of the decade for him.

His performance would earn him the NBA Finals MVP, although the award rightfully belonged to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The 1980 Lakers would close out the postseason with a 12-4 playoff record and a plus-4.3 average scoring margin in the playoffs. The sixth spot is perfect ranking for this team given its historical significance for both the league and the franchise but one could argue that the team was great but not legendary in terms of its accomplishments and what it did on the court.

Indeed, the story in itself is fantastic, but the team falls short of the top five.

Now the really good stuff is on its way…

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  August 22, 2012

Basketball may be on vacation, but the cyber press corp’s got you covered. Darius wrote about Dwight Howard’s offense and how it helps the Lakers, and Emile wrote about the Lakers way, and how we got here. The D-12 trade continues to be a lead story as well it should, given the length of time it took to gestate. There’s other news around the league of course, including Mark Cuban’s continued tomfoolery. But that’s not all!

Brian Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers looks at expectations for Coach Mike Brown. In a related post, he interviews the coach.

Derek Fishmore has the Silver Screen & Roll roundtable, on the biggest risks facing this season’s Lakers.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register has the story of how the Dwight Howard deal almost never was.

Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie expounds on the same subject matter.

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times, writes that Devin Ebanks waited until after the Dwight Howard trade to sign so that he wouldn’t be one of the chips. Smart kid.

Broderick Turner at the L.A. Times takes a look at the upgraded Lakers bench.

A very nice Tumblr piece from Holly MacKenzie, about growing up and how she became an NBA writer.

Trey Kirby at The Basketball Jones says Eric Spoelstra just knew the Lakers would land Dwight eventually.

Also from the Basketball Jones, Jeff Weiss about his post-Dwight Lakers fandom.

And finally, an interesting article by Sean Highkin for Hardwood Paroxysm, about the rookie extension and the race against times.

***

If I was a smarter and more efficient assembler of links, I’d… be more smarter and faster at it. But I’m not. I always have good and practical intentions, and then I read a few dozen articles and all of their links… and all of their links. And by the time I’m done it’s time for either lunch or a nap. Or both. As you might have guessed by now, I just don’t have a good exit plan today. *voice inside my head – stop typing now, Dave.

 

The Laker Way

Emile Avanessian —  August 21, 2012

I stand corrected. It appears the “new Laker fandom” will bear a striking resemblance to that which preceded it.

Ever since Andrew Bynum schooled J.J. Barea on the nuances of Newtonian physics in the spring of 2011, it was apparent that the Lakers — as then constituted — required a facelift. As that spring gave way to summer, and summer to lockout, lockout to, well, more lockout, and ultimately to the most frantic NBA silly season ever, the Lakers looked to have gone full Jerry Jones, swapping championship lynchpins Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for the best possible solution to their long running point guard dilemma, Chris Paul. Upon learning from David Stern that their health insurance policy did not cover cosmetic overhauls of this magnitude — let’s see if this analogy has legs, huh? — the Lakers were forced to pull a page from the playbook of many a courtside patron and “just get a little work done.”

No sooner had he “returned” from New Orleans than a dejected Odom was rerouted to the defending champion Mavericks, in exchange for a draft pick that reimbursed the Lakers for the legislated theft of Chris Paul — a pick that might just have materialized in time to select Little CP — and an $8.9 million handful of magic beans. Hold this thought.

Almost (if not) universally panned at the time, the saga seemed an ugly manifestation of the new Jimmy Buss era. Ascribed to a desire to jettison an emotional landmine, presumably of equal importance was the resulting cut in payroll. Between the new CBA and Short Buss/Gob/[insert pet name of your choosing], the Lakers were (yeah, I’m irrational and entitled. whatever) falling back to the NBA pack.

In the months that followed, they went back under the knife, turning Luke Walton and a first round pick into the point guard upgrade Laker Nation pined for, and then sending talismanic on-court liability Derek Fisher to Houston, in exchange for Jordan Hill. Ramon Sessions immediately cleared the shin-high hurdle of expectation (inspiring more than a few $e$$ion$ tweets along the way), averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists per game and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 57% (thanks to 48.6% from beyond the arc), while Hill showed flashes of becoming a badly needed frontcourt spark plug.

In the aforementioned pair of trades, the Lakers claimed no better than one draw and one defeat. There is a case to be made that the two trades did nothing more than cost the Lakers an ever-so-scarce first rounder (seriously, are we sure Mitch Kupchak didn’t once cut a shady deal with Joe Smith?) to rent a lead guard whose performance waned with time — though not so much that he opted against opting out of his contract — and a lotto-bust-turned-glue-guy that might have priced himself out of their budget with seven 6 and 6’s.

Fair enough.

That said, however, there is also a case to be made that the value of addressing your most glaring weakness — with a possible long-term solution (didn’t happen, but still) — while simultaneously inspiring goodwill among fans likely trumps the yield of a mid-20s draft pick. Hell, keeping Jordan Hill probably accomplishes that on its own.

Sure, the acquisition of this generation’s original #PointGod is a rising tide that lifts many a personnel decision, but that itself is merely a product of a longtime philosophy — one built on an ideal combination of patience and decisiveness, with zero parts fear. For more than three decades Mitch Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) and Jimmy (and for the three decades prior, Jerry) Buss have continually taken to the tightrope — if not in pursuit of improving the roster, then forcibly, at the hands of a disgruntled star (be it Magic in 1982, Shaq in 2003-04, Kobe in 2007 or Odom last winter) — and continually resisted the temptation of simple self-preservation (y’know, the type that seeks the comfort of “winning every trade” en route to building Replacement Player Voltron) in the interest of delivering true difference makers.

It is understanding, in the summer of 2004, that the differences between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant could no longer be worked around, and trading Shaq — perhaps a year or two early — in favor of the next decade of a purported franchise killer. It is, 11 months later with the Lakers clearly in decline and the remainder of Kobe’s prime hanging in the balance, selecting high schooler Andrew Bynum (while I begged for Danny Granger). Though Bynum was a project, his is twice- (perhaps three times) in-a-decade potential. It’s unlikely that in June 2005 the Lakers’ brass knew much more than we did regarding the path Bynum’s career would take, but they understood that should he realize even (arbitrarily) 60% of his potential, his value, on the floor and as an asset, would likely exceed that of an athletic wing, even one as talented as Granger. And given Bynum’s roles in both hanging another pair of banners in the rafters and the acquisition of the greatest center since Shaquille O’Neal, clearly they were correct.

In the weeks that followed, the second-best member of the 2004-05 Lakers and a future All-Star, Caron Butler – who is also a Kobe favorite and (in possibly related news) the rare member of the first post-Shaq Laker squad not openly starstruck in Bean’s presence – was shipped to the nation’s capital, in exchange for MJ-protégé-turned-ham-handed-cake-vandal Kwame Brown. In all likelihood the downgrade was not lost on Kupchak – though it must be said that Kwame Brown, a 22 year-old big man four years removed from being a #1 overall pick, presented an interesting value proposition — though neither was the realization that building the Western Conference’s version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards offered little long term value.

Meanwhile, with Bynum developing at a pace one would expect from an 18 year-old big man, Kobe, fearing the remainder of his prime would be frittered away in NBA purgatory, (inadvertently) publicly lobbied for the front office to cut ties with Bynum, in favor of Jason Kidd. Upon the front office’s refusal to oblige his request, Kobe shifted his focus and, in the summer of 2007, demanded that he himself be traded, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, preferably in exchange for a less-than-optimal package. In this, the most terrifying time to be a Laker fan since November 1991, Kupchak stayed his course, recognizing that he was under no obligation to act in haste, and refused to become footnoted as the man that traded two of the top dozen players in the game’s history.

Banking on Kobe’s dedication to his craft (and his legacy) winning out, the Lakers tipped off the 2007-08 with their frustrated superstar in tow. And then a funny thing happened…

While Kobe brooded and plotted his exit from L.A. (though he still balled), a rare underdog Laker squad, behind double-double averages from Odom and Bynum (who was lost for the season after just 35 games) and 20.8 points and 5.6 assists in 48 combined minutes per game from Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, unexpectedly returned to the top of the Western Conference. Winners of 19 of their first 29 and 27 of their first 40, the Lakers were rewarding Kupchak’s steadfastness in not parting company with a transcendent talent. The extent to which they were true contenders was debatable, but the greenness of the grass elsewhere could no longer be a given for Kobe.

Having not only traded a future All-Star to acquire Kwame Brown, but also having given him a three-year/$24-million contract to stick around, the Lakers looked to be a bit of a bind with their bust-y big man. That winter, as he did again this summer, Mitch turned the tables on that pair of increasingly fruitless personnel decisions. As tends to be the case with the habitually successful, good fortune smiled upon the Lakers — in the form of a stalled counterparty desperate to cut costs and salvage value for a big money star. On February 1, 2008, in one of the great redemptive trades in recent history, Kupchak parlayed Kwame (along with Marc Gasol, who unexpectedly blossomed into a top-shelf center) into one of the world’s most unique, talented and uniquely talented big men, Pau Gasol.

The rest you are probably familiar with. Having significantly upgraded the frontcourt without creating new holes elsewhere (sound familiar?), the Lakers won 27 of their final 36 in the regular season, locked up the West’s top seed and coasted through the playoffs, dropping just three games en route to the Finals.

A lackluster Finals performance and a pair of postseason disappointments gave rise (and longevity) to more undeserved criticism than any team-first top-15 talent that’s helped anchor a pair of title teams should ever have to endure. In addition, they sparked endless speculation regarding Gasol’s future with the franchise. In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling rationality, thanks in large part to Pau’s incredible maturity and professionalism, rather than selling low on an all-world talent, Kupchak held tight. (Note: yes, in December 2011 he did in fact trade Pau, but in doing so he was procuring the services of Chris freaking Paul)

Meanwhile…

Crucified at the time (yeah, I did it too) for gifting Odom, a valued contributor to the defending champions, and again at the trade deadline for seemingly foregoing the opportunity to salvage value in exchange, Kupchak again conducted a clinic in opportunism. With the Lakers sliding further down the Western Conference totem pole, in classic Laker front office fashion, he masterfully capitalized on one of the assets at his disposal. Using the flexibility afforded by the $8.9 million trade exception, Kupchak facilitated the Phoenix Suns’ transition into transition, landed one of the great point guards of this generation and one of the best shooters of all time — Steve Nash.

Meanwhile…

On a different front, trade winds continued to swirl around Andrew Bynum. Ever since the Jason Kidd chatter of years past, he had been rumored… let’s just say that any rumor not involving Gasol (and even one that did) was constructed around ‘Drew.

As he had with Kobe and Gasol, Kupchak (probably with some input from Jimmy) took a measured approach, valuing Bynum (rightfully) as elite asset and refusing to swap a super-skilled 7-foot, 285-pound, 24 year-old (how is he still so young??) for whatever shiny object du jour happened to be dangled before him. Additionally, when it seemed the Dwight Howard saga (putting it mildly) might conclude with the Lakers stranded in the cold, Kupchak held his ground, refusing to package Bynum and Gasol in exchange for Howard, as Orlando was demanding. And in the end, with a Joe Johnson trade here and Brook Lopez max-out there, the urgency Orlando had attempted to instill in the Lakers not only subsided, but reversed field.

In thinking about the recent chain of events in Lakerland, I am reminded of a decade and a half ago. A once-in-a-lifetime big man and (though we didn’t know it at the time) wing within the Lakers’ grasp, then-GM (and Kupchak’s mentor and hoops Jedi) Jerry West, having resisted the urge to trade away Vlade Divac — around whom (if memory serves) rumors had swirled (as much as they could back then) — the season prior, parted ways with his starting center only when payoff was the payroll flexibility required to secure a transcendent big man like Shaquille O’Neal… and an 18 year-old Kobe Bryant.

Hate the Lakers for past success. Hate them for their inexhaustible resources. Hate them for residing in a top-tier market with perfect weather. Understand, however, that more than any of these, what’s set them apart is the ability to maintain composure when the stakes are highest. West understood in ’96 what Mitch Kupchak has since mastered. The skill lies not in knowing precisely who will come available and when, but in the knowledge that someone will hit the market, and that the flexibility to deal and willingness to pounce without fear are the ultimate difference makers.