Archives For Western Conference

It seems like the nation may be underestimating the Los Angeles Lakers the same way they overestimated them last summer.

ESPN released its annual Summer Forecast for the Western Conference this week and the Lakers are projected to finish with 36 wins — 12th in the conference, and out of the playoffs. The projected standings were determined by a panel of 215 members – four of which are our very own and write for Forum Blue and Gold (Emile Avanessian, Philip Barnett, Rey Moralde, J.M. Poulard)

After the standings were released, Kobe Bryant took to Twitter and voiced his opinion.

Kobe’s obviously not pleased with the rest of the country thinking that his team is not playoff material. He will probably use this as fuel to ignite a fire we will see burning on the court when the season commences. He has every reason to disagree with the rankings.

36 wins?

The Western Conference has improved tremendously throughout the summer and the Lakers lost a major piece in Dwight Howard. However, the Lakers still have three sure fire hall of famers on their team in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. Not many teams can say that.

It’s easy to forgot all the problems the Lakers experienced that they most likely WON’T have to go through this year. Here are a few of them:

  • High expectations: I think the fact that they’re projected to finish 12th means that a simple two-game losing streak won’t be talked about constantly on Mason and Ireland for four hours like it usually does. Low expectations can be a good thing sometimes. The last time people were this down on the Lakers was in 2007-08 and they went to the Finals that year.
  • Lack of chemistry: A class with Breaking Bad’s Walter White wouldn’t even have improved the Lakers chemistry last year. They were a new bunch who never really found a way to play together. Transitioning from the Princeton Offense in training camp to D’Antoni’s fast pace system wasn’t helpful in ameliorating the situation either.
  • Dwight’s baggage: As awful as it is losing Dwight’s on-court production, it’s not necessarily bad that the Lakers won’t have to deal with the outside distractions that come with Howard. Having an upward bump in their free throw percentage will not hurt either.
  • New coach five games into the season: Surely Jim Buss can’t make the same mistake twice, right? Right??? Firing Mike Brown after a 1-4 start was simply wrong. First off, Brown never got a fair shake. Five games is equivalent to one NFL game. No one fires a head coach after just one full training camp after such a small sample size. D’Antoni was Buss’ handpicked guy and he needs to stick with him until the final game no matter what. A full training camp for D’Antoni and roster guys that fit his system like Chris Kaman and Nick Young doesn’t hurt either.
  • Pau at the 4: As Darius Soriano highlighted earlier this week, Gasol is best at the center position. Hopefully he will return there with Howard gone and his numbers will bounce back to where they should be. Also, since the Lakers are thin roster wise, Pau won’t be getting benched this year. There’s no doubt that his benching hurt his psyche last season.
  • Obscene amount of injuries: Injuries happen to every team and the Lakers core is one of the oldest in the league. There’s no doubt that Kobe, Pau, and Nash will miss parts of the season. That said, last year was not normal. Everyone was literally hurt or playing hurt. When Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock are starting in the playoffs, that tells you everything you need to know.

Despite all of this, the Lakers still won 45 games. This season, they will likely be able to get rid of all of those problems (including the injuries with some luck). Let’s not forget, every single Laker (other than Steve Nash and rookies) is playing for a contract. Whether or not moral hazard exists in sports, one has to surmise that if a championship isn’t a motivating factor this year, then hopefully money will be. Bottom line is that if the Lakers were able to win 45 games last year with all that tumult and turmoil, they should be able to win that many games again if they stay healthy and avoid distractions.

With Howard gone and D’Antoni coaching, the team’s biggest weakness will obviously be its defense. They’re not going to fool anyone — they’re going to try to score their way to victory every single night. That has its positives, though. Because of this, they already have an identity. One can make the argument that they never found one last year because of all the injuries and the lack of chemistry.

While teams like the Pelicans, Mavs, Wolves, and Blazers (who are all listed ahead of the Lakers in the projected standings) will be competing for a playoff spot, the Lakers have the talent to be a playoff team, and if they’re not, they’re going to be closer to the 8th seed than the 15th. Currently, Bet Online gives the Lakers the 9th best odds to win the Western Conference. This is still on the outside looking in, but it’s a lot better than being buried in 12th place.

Those odds also may be underrating the Lakers because of the public’s overreaction regarding Howard’s departure. Most people are probably staying away from the Lakers bet, so the bookmakers are giving great odds.

Again, this isn’t a championship caliber team, but let’s not make too much from these predictions. After all, these are the same soothsayers that said that the Lakers were going to be playing the Heat in the NBA Finals last summer.

The games still need to be played and heading into the season, one has to be pretty confident that a squad with three future Hall of Famers, no distractions, limited injuries, an identity, and a bunch of hungry players fighting for a contract will at least land the 7th seed or better.

Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.

In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.

It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.

Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.

That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.

 

Records: Lakers 23-27 (10th in the West), Bobcats 11-37 (15th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (8th in the NBA), Bobcats 98.7 (29th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.2 (t-17th in the NBA), Bobcats 108.7 (30th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Bobcats: Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hakim Warrick, Bismack Biyombo
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Bobcats:

 

Bag it, Dwight.

Seriously.

I say this, in all sincerity, not as an indictment of Dwight Howard, his toughness or his dedication to the Lakers’ collective (take that descriptor to heart at your own risk) quest for… I don’t know what. As the hits pile up faster than frozen slush on the Northeastern streets, it time – well, the latest time – for the Lakers to assess coldly the predicament in which they find themselves and pragmatically define the best case scenario for what remains of this wretched campaign.

Even before Pau Gasol felt a pop in his right plantar fascia, long gone was the notion that these Lakers will contend for a title. What now? Do we cling dogmatically to the misguided belief that this crew will unearth the grit, determination and shared strategic philosophy necessary to leapfrog at least two team at whom they’re looking up in the Western Conference standings, earning the always fun “team no one wants to see in the first round” title in the process? This would appear to be the least toxic of the Lakers’ venomous options, as (as has been discussed ad nauseum, here and elsewhere) the absence of a first round draft choice through which the team could retool inexpensively precludes the team from mailing in the remainder of this snakebitten season and returning next fall, younger and healthier. Missing playoffs strengthens the division rival Suns with a lottery pick, while a token postseason appearance sends a lesser selection to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s a lot of work for not a lot of anything.

If you take nothing else from the mildly coherent rant above, understand this: despite the temporary respite afforded by six victories in seven games (including the last three, with Pau, sans Dwight), the 2012-13 Lakers season is an unmitigated disaster. With nearly two thirds of the season gone, this team, anchored by “four future Hall of Famers” (I’m ready to not see that that again for a while), this team that will shell out for its players’ services nine figures this fiscal year, sports an abysmal 23-27 mark and has only just embarked on minimum six-week journey without one of its two remaining serviceable big men.

After some pointed comments by Kobe Bryant that may or may not have been as pointed as presented, Dwight Howard, aggravated labrum packed in Kevlar (or something), suited up for the first time in four games Thursday night in Boston. Despite conspicuously lacking both the aggressiveness and explosion that hallmark his characteristic dominance, Dwight had the Celtics in the penalty a scant 142 seconds into the game and racked up seven first quarter fouls on three of his frontcourt counterparts.

HOWEVAH…

In total, he saw the floor for just 28 minutes – a fourth of them coming during an inexplicable stint in an inconsequential fourth quarter – accumulating nine points, nine rebounds, four turnovers, no blocked shots and six fouls, while connecting on one of six attempts from the free throw line, and was regularly beaten to rebounds and loose balls by the likes of Jason Collins and Chris freaking Wilcox.

Do off nights happen? Sure. This, however, felt like more than a 2008 Game 6 doppelganger. A pair of fading contenders, each without a front line performer, locked horns with pride and the playoffs at stake, and the more desperate, less shorthanded of the two was found wanting. The 116-95 margin by which the Celtics ran the Lakers out of Boston flattered the visitors, who missed 10 of 18 free throws and 10 of 12 3-pointers en route to a 14-point halftime deficit and, despite Kobe going Mamba after the break, were torched to the tune of 37 points in the third quarter and faced a 26-point gap that relegated the starting backcourt to the pine for the entirety of the final 12.

Kneejerk alarmism and defeatism have never figured into my Laker fandom. However, to extricate from the bind in which they find themselves, these Lakers must not only sustain a run of play that has heretofore eluded them, they’ll have to do so without Pau Gasol, while potentially running into the ground the big man to whom they plan to tether their future. All for a first round date with the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder. What’s that thing they say about risk and reward?

Tonight, as the town in which they were last buried is itself blanket with snow, the Lakers roll into Charlotte, the order of the evening their fourth victory in six games on the second night of a back-to-back. Once again, Dwight Howard will accompany his teammates onto a floor on which the Lakers have lost five of seven games all time, as the boys in Forum Blue embark on their latest trek toward .500, against the NBA’s clear-cut bottom dweller. After an encouraging start to the season, the Bobcats have dropped thirty-two of their last thirty-six, including a 101-100 defeat at Staples Center in which they held a double-digit lead.

If the Lakers are unable to take care of business against a squad that ranks in the league’s bottom two at both ends of the floor, they’ll depart Miami Sunday evening have put to rest more than their annual Grammy trip.

Are there really no twists in this plot?

Nearly eight weeks removed from their lone, 24-hour peek over the .500 threshold, and losers of five straight since last sporting as many wins as losses, the Lakers took the Staples Center floor Friday night desperate, desperate to put a tally in the left hand column of 2013’s ledger, desperate to the salvage something from this week’s run through the Western Conference, desperate to resuscitate a heretofore stillborn season for the ages.

Admittedly, an encounter with the OKC is hardly an elixir for what ails the depleted and downtrodden Lakers. The defending Western Conference champions – hardly averse to putting a thumping on Kobe & Co. – entered Friday’s tilt in need of a victory to maintain a share of the NBA’s best record with the Clippers (yep, we’re there), the league’s most devastating wing attack in tow.

And then, in a game that tipped off against the backdrop of inevitable defeat, for 12 magical minutes, Lakers succeeded in not only in keeping the Thunder within striking distance, but actually had the score level. Despite seven shot attempts (and just one make) by Metta in the game’s first seven minutes, the offensive styling’s of Kobe Bryant, Jordan Hill 2.0, err, Earl Clark and evolutionary-Jack-Haley-turned-starting-center Robert Sacre, the Lakers weathered an early Thunderstorm (I am SO sorry for that) and, thanks to an 11-0 run that took place with Kevin Durant on the bench, and entered the second quarter tied at 25.

Then, as I drafted the official charter for the Earl Jam Fan Club while Etch-a-Sketching Bobby Sacre’s corporeal mural, oddly secure in the misguided pregame belief that the confluence of SO many antagonists had merely set the stage for contrarianism’s latest triumph, the worm began to turn. And man, what a pirouette it was. That Kobe Bryant and Earl Clark combined to outscore Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the opening stanza (13-12) was soon a distant memory, as the Thunder blitzed the Lakers, hanging 39 in the second quarter to open up a 64-48 halftime lead, a lead they’d extend to 73-52 two and a half minutes into the third quarter (yep, that’s 48-27 in 14.5 post-first quarter minutes), and ultimately stretch to 27 points.

With Russell Westbrook at less than his devastating best for much of the night, it was tempting to envision a scenario in which the Lakers might cobble together a scrappy collective effort and steal perhaps their unlikeliest victory of the season. But then, y’know, Kevin Durant.

In 39 minutes, KD delivered a soul-crushing 42 points (on 16-of-25 shooting), with 8 rebounds, 5 assists. Upon scoring his 38th point, Durant had seen the floor for all of 21 minutes, and attempted just 20. From the beautiful three-point play in transition that signaled his intent for the evening, to his 16-pont barrage in the second quarter, to his 13-point effort in third, Kevin Durant was nothing short of sublime on Friday night.

Stop me if you read this on Twitter during the game (or don’t – you can read it twice), but to say that Durant torched the Lakers is to grossly overrate the destructive power of fire.

By the time the story of this game was written, nightmare scenarios – both micro and macro – had become the Lakers’ reality. An inspiring start fizzled into yet another dispirited defeat. Laying down the bassline for tonight’s symphony of disappointment were two men from whom a significant contribution was expected at both ends, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison. Not only did the duo fail to extract maximum effort from Durant in exchange for his points, they turned up the volume scoring to earsplitting levels, connecting on just 13 of 35 shots (1-of-12 on 3’s) en route to 31 points.

ALL of that said…

On a night on which the Oklahoma City Thunder could have elected to sit out the fourth quarter and still only lost by eight points, the most depressing development came from the Lakers’ bench. Tests on the hip that’s already relegated Jordan Hill to spectator status revealed that the heart of Lakers’ second unit, the team’s hardest worker and spark plug, will require season-ending surgery.

I will not suggest that Hill’s presence would elevate, frankly, a subpar unit often devoid of grit and determination to the heights to which we aspired over the summer, but his absence all but ensures the Lakers’ absence from such heights. A team in a desperate need of youthful exuberance and a blue-collar work ethic had found its man in Jordan Hill, and Hill, a year ago deemed a lottery bust, had grabbed his lunch pail and embraced his role on this team. I wish Jordan the best on the upcoming surgery and a very speedy recovery. He will be missed.

There is more to be said about this Lakers season. It’s swirling around. I just can’t get a handle on it.

I leave you with this: in order to reach the presumably playoff-worthy 45-win threshold, the now-15-21 Lakers will need to finish the regular season a 30-16 run.

Welcome to our nightmare.

 

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.