Does Magic Johnson’s Hire Put Mitch Kupchak’s Job at Risk?

Darius Soriano —  February 8, 2017

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.

Darius Soriano

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to Does Magic Johnson’s Hire Put Mitch Kupchak’s Job at Risk?

  1. …there is a new sheriff in town.


  2. If I am Jeanie, I don’t just fire my brother and tell the world that he failed in his promises and job. What do I do, once I’ve decided to do so? I would gather all the venerable Lakers voices I can find – Magic, West, Kobe – consult, and begin a shepherding process intended to last a few months, culminating to the release of my brother and replacement by either someone directly from the circle of HOF’s or someone they recommend, by the end of the season and prior to the draft. Jim and probably Mitch won’t be selecting in the draft or offering contracts to FA’s, Magic and Jerry will.


  3. From these details, it’s apparent that Kupchak is by the book. That being said, I have never heard of other GMs being penalized for tampering and speaking to free agents before July 1. Thus, I would assume that sports agents 

    No doubt Kupchak has made solid moves (Gasol, Ariza, etc.). However, to spend that much on role players (Deng & Mozgov) has crippled the growth of the team. We are looking at a five year rebuild from this point on, which means that the team should move current assets for more picks. Many of us have been clamoring to move Lou as he doesn’t fit our timeline and can get us a 1st round pick especially if in the best case scenario we only have to give one up in 2018. 

    However, because Kupchak and Buss are on the timeline, it looks like they’re only interested in “NOW” moves to support them staying. The end result of our team composition shows that it’s time for both of them to go.


  4. I initially thought Magic’s “hiring” was more of a symbolic move, but based on this article it looks like he’s going to be more actively involved than I expected and rather than offering “advice” he’s going to be one of the decision-makers along with Jeannie. 
    As for Mitch, again if the reporting casts an accurate light, then his negotiating style is concerning. I can’t judge how serious tampering penalties are and don’t remember any team getting caught for such offenses. Is it a speeding ticket or drunk driving offense? That said, is this something that Mitch can address with more support and interaction from Jeannie and without Jim’s unrealistic deadline? Is his eye for talent more valuable and harder to find than someone with better negotiating skills?
    Also, Jim’s deadline likely had some impact on decisions. In order to “win now,” they had to pursue big name UFAs even though the chances of signing were small IMO. So one consequence is you hold off on Isaiah Thomas, Bazemore etc waiting for these UFAs were probably just using us as a bargaining chip. Mitch reports to Jim so if Jim set that course how much leeway does Mitch have to head in a different direction?

    The article also claims that Jeannie did have not much interaction with Jim and Mitch. That doesn’t make sense to me even if she’s trying to be a “hands-off” owner and rather underscores the dysfunction within ownership.  I can’t imagine that Jeannie and Magic don’t want to “win now” either, but they may have a more deliberate approach than the go-for-broke strategy that Jim and/or Mitch were pursing the last few years. 
    Of course, this is the favorable-to-Mitch explanation of what’s happened. The article certainly raises some questions about his role in the mess the team is now.


  5. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mitch.  I appreciate that he keeps his cards close to his chest and the deal for Gasol was brilliant.  That said, this is the first time I’ve seen any info about his other moves in the FO.  It has never been clear to me who exactly has been pulling the strings in FA.  If Mitch is behind the times in how the league works and is overvaluing the ability of the franchise to pull in star FA’s than it really might be time to let him go.  At the least the Lakers may need to put someone else in charge of free agency because our deals are being made as though we are still under the old CBA.


  6. The big question mark this raises to me is does Jeanie have the authority to dismiss Jim or Mitch?  If she does I don’t see the need to make a public spectacle like this.  Leading me to believe she doesn’t and that she needs this to somehow force the issue.


  7. I’m not particularly thrilled with Magic coming on-board. Maybe it’s just a public persona, but over the past few years Magic hasn’t exactly been a voice of reason so much as a “OMG this is so easy why don’t the Lakers do this impossible thing?”

    I’m interested as ever to see where it goes. I get that Mitch has made mistakes, but he also was steering the ship when Kobe wanted out, when we got Gasol, maximized the value of Bynum (even if it was for Howard instead of a wing like we should have done).  And I can understand the GM of the Lakers trying to be more by the book. It’s not like the league hasn’t indicated a desire to watch the Lakers more closely or deny them advantages (*cough*CP3*cough*).

    I dunno. Mitch isn’t perfect and maybe it’s time to ride into the sunset, but I don’t see how Magic addresses anything. It smacks of another “make the fans happy” move that doesn’t fix underlying issues at all.


  8. rumdood Mitch, whatever his stumbles in FA, is still in my mind one of the best GM’s in the league.  Magic would definitely be a downgrade from Mitch.  Now if Jerry West was serious about coming back…


  9. I’m a fan of Mitch Kupchak. But if I’m being honest I think the task in front of the Lakers is not for Mitch to conquer. Mitch has been an excellent GM over the years. He also had the good fortune of operating on a template that Jerry West had firmly established. It was West who rebuilt the Lakers from “Showtime” in the 80’s to the “Lake show” of the early 90’s. It was also West who did the heavy lifting in wooing Shaq in free agency and having the confidence to draft a 17 year old high school guard when that was totally against the norm. The few high school players drafted up to that point where always front court players. 

    For all of Mitch’s solid performance he has never rebuilt a team. Plus, it seems that Mitch’s approach is a bit out of date for today’s NBA. I can see him as a consultant as the man knows basketball. But he shouldn’t be the guy working the phones. The Lakers need a younger GM who is more plugged in with players and their agents.


  10. I just hope they have a long term plan, practice patience and work towards that vision.
    They have to realize that they need a foundation first. Continue developing the young guys. The star player should be icing on the cake. Boston is doing it right.
    I’m terrified that Magic/Jeanie are still old fashioned and throw the “This is LA, fans want stars” too much already. I can see them packaging players for a washed out ball hogging Carmelo and a nobody wants to play with Cousins. Let’s bring Phil back and have Ramis coach because hey they have Lakers blood, are gritty and will teach these players how not to be soft and represent purple and gold 🙁


  11. I expect that this will go one of two ways: 

    1. Jerry West: Senior Consultant/Mitch Kupchak: VP/Ryan West: GM
    2. New Outside Guy with Ryan West, Mitch as consultant; Jerry either retires or re-ups with Golden State

    Either one of these is OK with me, but I am opposed to Magic Johnson in any FO role other than consultant/advisor/recruiter


  12. TempleOfJamesWorthy February 8, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    The discussion about the Lakers front office reminds me of some political discussions where a person will declare “Politician X did a lousy job!” When pressed about what Politician X ***should*** have done instead of what he did, the critic frequently can offer no specifics.

    The fact recent Lakers management decisions have not worked out (or not worked out as well as we would have liked) does not automatically imply those were bad decisions and/or the front office is incompetent.

    Unless someone can offer reasons why Mitch/Jim have personality/structural problems which suggest their efforts will continue to fail in the future (and Shelburne’s article does indicate some possible issues), I have no reason to believe anyone the Lakers might bring in to replace Mitch/Jim will automatically be better.

    Sam Hinkie was excoriated as a misguided fraud…then Joel Embiid got healthy and suddenly he was a genius. The Process Worked!

    Basing our evaluations solely on outcomes, instead of reflecting on whether the processes which produced those outcomes were reasonable, is a foolhardy endeavor.


  13. new rr  

    100% agree on the Magic role.  

    Jerry West although a predictable name to be linked with the Lakers, would seem to only be a fringe type of piece that would form the new (or OLD) brain trust.  Perhaps a Consultant as you suggest.  I did see the Kawakami comments about JW’s possible interest.   That said, he turns 79 in May and just was released from the Hospital in LA in the last couple of weeks.  

    10 Years ago I would say its a no brainer to get him back in the fold.  Now, I wonder how much impact he would have going forward.  I DO think working with his son would give him some added interest in getting back in a more active FO role.  I only worry that he would not be healthy enough to contribute to huge rebuild and feel the Laker Nation pressure.  

    As Magic said though in his interview on Spectrum, Dr. Buss surrounded himself with great basketball minds.  Certainly, the Warriors have done the same thing.  Having Jerry West back AND perhaps retaining Mitch in a role other than actual GM would add to the basketball IQ of the FO for sure. 

    I would say, maybe:

    Magic: Team Ambassador/General Consultant
    Jerry West:  Sr.  Basketball Consultant
    Mitch Kupchak:  President Basketball Ops
    NEW OUTSIDE GUY: General Manager
    Ryan West:  Assistant GM
    Chazz:  Head Bartender
    Jim Buss:  Bar-Back
    ***Chazz has to Tip Out Jim at the end of the night


  14. Vasheed

    Its a family vote situation.  It has been reported that Magic allows for an outside voice and a bit of a buffer/shield for any actions to have Jim step down.  

    I think its been made clear by Magic himself that he does not desire a GM role.  I don’t fear his presence as long as his role is as it is and not a hands on personnel position.


  15. Interesting article Darius,.. especially the possibility, per Magic, that several key free agents were thrown off by Mitch’s approach, which if true, could mean that Magic has the potential to bring in some much needed help.
    I’m not at all faulting Mitch, as if one takes in his whole career as GM thus far, it demands at least respect from even his most ardent detractor. Which I am not, by the way.

    His skill set however could best be served as a consultant to a new GM, or to step into Jim’s shoes.
    As for Magic, I for one, am willing to see he can do as a GM. Ryan West? Still too green.

    Last but in no way least,.. Jerry west, nearing 80, I could see him as a consultant yes, but nothing more strenuous than that,.. as I would hate to see him meet his demise in what is a difficult uphill climb.


  16. I’d be happy to see Mitch and Jim both “graduate” upstairs:  Jim as owner-advisor, and Mitch as consultant, along with Magic.  The obvious candidate for GM is Ryan West, but I’m willing to be surprised.


  17. Clay Bertrand new rr

    Well, Jerry West is old, but AFAIK he is still mentally sharp and, presumably, bringing his journey full circle by working with his son and his former second-in-command on the team that drafted him 57 years ago would hold a strong emotional appeal for him. 
    It is kind of hard for me to picture a New Outside Guy working with the Wests and Kupchak, but it could happen.


  18. How did we get here?  let’s digress: Jerry West just needs to be sitting in the room, watching from the stands, teleconferenced in if necessary;  his presence will be felt even if only his name is being mentioned in the same breath as if to say Jerry West has or has had a hand in pointing any organization in the direction of a prospective draftee, in a potential trade.  To me Jerry West has the best eye for talent in all of basketball and just as important; his recommendations carry the added weight that the prospectee (if there is such a word) will in turn do their best to prove West’s eye for talent.  Jerry West has that effect and trust in people that pays back tenfold.

    The perfect and most trusted consultant for an organization that reeks for a perfect and most trusted consultant.  It’s the perfect re-beginning.  Everything else is secondary.

    Go lakers