While most outsiders (and some inside the organization) expressed their opinions, it should be no surprise that the Mitch Kupchak firing has not inspired any comments from the man who was actually let go. Mitch has always been someone who said only as much as he’s needed to (and sometimes even less than that), preferring to keep his private life private. Further, Kupchak’s reputation as a fiercely loyal executive who stays above the fray by always remaining classy with comments is well earned.
So, in some ways, Kupchak discussing his firing from the Lakers on the latest podcast from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is a bit of a surprise. Going on the record with anything more than some filtered comments about the organization he spent over three and a half decades is even less expected. However, that’s exactly what Kupchak did, offering up some of the expected platitudes, but also going in on what he thought contributed to him (and Jim Buss) being let go:
I think as a group, the two of us, Jimmy and myself, we imposed maybe some unrealistic guidelines as to when the team can be competitive and how quickly we can do it. I think in today’s world it takes more time under the existing collective bargaining agreement with 30 very, very competitive teams and 30 competitive teams and I felt we were on our way with young talented players. We signed a couple of veterans this past summer and preserved cap room going forward but I felt the urgency to do it quicker was there. Of course Jim made some comments a couple years ago about getting into the playoffs maybe this year. Maybe that added on to the urgency with us, maybe it gave some people the ability to say ‘well, they said they were going to do this and they’re not doing it as quickly as we thought.’ So I think that may have been a factor. We didn’t get it back to where we said we would as quickly as we said we would.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First off, Mitch’s loyalty still shines through, here. It has been reported many times that it was Jim, in a meeting with his siblings, who created the timeline for contention. Not once was it ever said reported that Mitch had anything to do with that. However, with these quotes Mitch comes right out and says “the two of us”, implying he and Jim were both to blame.
Second, and this isn’t to make excuses, but while he was the GM, Kupchack often spoke of the limitations of the CBA and how it would take time for teams to sort out what the exact ramifications were and how to navigate the shifting tides. This would be especially true for a team like the Lakers where a combination of historical success, a big market, and a team facing decline would need to manage their approach differently than what had been their norm for decades. It seems Mitch is admitting here that he and Jim did not fully take that into account and it hurt them.
Lastly, the point about there being an urgency to do get better quickly is, as expected, a big theme in all this. From the timeline to contend to outside pressures from the team being out of the playoffs for multiple consecutive seasons, the front office clearly felt pressure to turn things around. And that pressure likely influenced the moves which contributed to Kupchak (and Jim) being removed.
If there’s one thing I disagree with in Mitch’s comments, though, it’s the characterization that the team signed (Deng and Mozgoz) while still preserving cap room. While that can technically be true, the team wouldn’t have even had enough for a single max contract for a 10-year veteran if with both those contracts on the books heading into next summer. So, while it’s true cap space remained, the flexibility of having one or more full max slots was gone after those signings happened. This then led to having to shed a real asset to dump Mozgov and, as it stands, needing to make choices between waiving/trading other players (not only Deng) in order to carve out more space.
All in all, none of this is really new and, for the most part, is common sense. Most of us can draw a line directly from Jim’s declaration the team would contend in 3-4 years, through the team’s approach and execution in free agency, right to Mitch and Jim being fired when it didn’t succeed. Also, we should always remember that once Magic Johnson was brought on, there was a good chance it put Mitch’s job in jeopardy.
That said, hearing Kupchak basically say all this outright is not something I expected. Not just because he’s generally not inclined to go on the record with anything substantive, but because it’s often rare you hear anyone who was fired speak with as much self awareness or clarity on why they got let go in the first place.
Where Kupchak goes from here is unknown, but he does note that he plans to visit other teams during training camp and have conversations with GM’s around the league to see how they’re doing business. He clearly still wants to be around the game. And considering his time and success with the Lakers, I hope he gets his shot.