We have already discussed Magic Johnson’s hiring as an advisor to Jeanie Buss at length, offering some thoughts on how it might impact Jim Buss’ job as well as why I am taking a more wait and see approach to how his role actually plays out before I make any lasting judgments.
One of the under-discussed aspects of Magic’s hire, however, is what might happen to Mitch Kupchak. I will get this out of the way up front — I like Mitch. I think, in the aggregate, he’s been good at his job as General Manager. I think he has a good eye for talent and roster construction while also being quite good at saying a lot without saying anything at all (which is important for a guy in his position when speaking publicly or making on the record comments).
That said, how I feel about Kupchak doesn’t matter. What does matter is how Jeanie Buss and, now that he’s on board in his new role, Magic feels about him. And, according to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, their opinions may not be as clear cut as mine:
According to sources close to the situation, Magic has already heard from agents and executives from other teams that Kupchak’s deliberate style can be frustrating to deal with and has probably cost the Lakers in free agency in recent years, missing out on a list of names that includes Isaiah Thomas, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Lowry, Ed Davis, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Eric Gordon…
…Part of the reason the Lakers missed out on those cases is a philosophical decision to prioritize superstar free agents above all else. But another read is that the Lakers aren’t moving at the speed NBA business is now being conducted.
Said one player agent, who has dealt with Kupchak on several contracts, “He’s the only GM in the league who won’t engage at all before 9:01 p.m. [PT] on the first night of free agency. Then when he calls to express interest, there’s no stickiness to it.”
That speaks to Kupchak’s integrity, as contact with an agent or player is considered tampering before the opening of free agency, but it also speaks, according to sources, to a lack of savvy. There are ways of gathering information on free agents without trampling the rules, so that a team doesn’t begin the process far behind everyone else.
This isn’t the first time I have read about Kupchak’s deliberate nature or strict adherence to league policy regarding free agents. It is, however, one of the first times I have seen it framed quite this way — as costing the team legit opportunities in free agency or, potentially, creating difficulty with agents. These things are meaningful — especially when seen through the prism of the team’s struggles the past several seasons.
Shelburne also frames the contracts offered to Mozgov and Deng in an especially unflattering way in relation to Kupchak, noting that Mitch offered the Russian big man such a large contract because (Mitch) was “reluctant to allow Mozgov to be tempted by other offers” while Deng “had no other offers that extended beyond three seasons” but was given a 4-year offer by the Lakers — which presumably means Kupchak again.
There is a sentiment among a very vocal segment of Lakers’ fans that whatever positive moves come out of the front office can be attributed to Mitch while the negative ones are on Jim. While I always viewed that as an overly simple and scapegoat-y way of viewing the team’s operations, Shelburne’s reporting disputes that here.
Shelburne winds down her piece with this:
IT STARTS HERE as the Feb. 23 trade deadline approaches, when Magic is expected to play a part in the Lakers’ decision-making process. But he’s not the general manager. He’s at the senior level, hired to advise, not to get down in the weeds plotting out maneuvers.
The expectation, according to sources close to the situation, is that he will stay at that level beyond this season. In the short term, he’ll be a voice alongside Kupchak and Buss. But in the coming months, he’s expected to help Jeanie Buss decide whether to revamp the basketball operations leadership team.
I have already argued that Jim is standing on shaky ground. Magic’s previous criticisms — comments Shelburne reports he still stands by and said as much to Jim — were harsh and not the types of things which are easily let go of or so insubstantial to not influence future decision making. It seems, though, that there are things which have previously gone unreported which may make Mitch’s position similarly shaky.
As someone who has inherited staff in previous lines of work, the common line of thought is that the best time to make a change is in your first 6 months. That clock, I’d guess, has already started for Jim and, it seems, Mitch. We’ll see how it goes. I think everyone, from fans to people around the league, will be watching with interest.