In life, sometimes you reap what you sow. Sometimes you get what you deserve. The Lakers team assembled in the summer of 2013 was built upon the infertile ground of wishes: don’t get hurt, don’t get older, don’t remain mediocre. And for the fans: don’t mourn the results. Still the fallout of a weary season has tainted Mitch Kupchak for the first time in his tenure as the Lakers G.M. leaving a small scar upon his reputation. He is being scrutinized, second guessed, critiqued and in some quarters rebuked; failure brings out the bottom feeders. No one remembers anymore his Pau to the Lakers trade brilliance. To many this is his low point, the signing of a 38 year old point guard with back issues to a fully guaranteed 27 million dollar contract. In essence, Kupchak was saying to the basketball world: Steve Nash is worth 9 million dollars. He is worth what Steph Curry makes.
It is unclear why Kupchak did this, why he went out on such a limb when he did not have to. He was bidding against himself but basketball is not an outlier. Errors occur in all walks of life. A plane crashes because someone was not paying attention. A car crashes because someone had too much to drink. An organization crashes because an illogical decision was made. As astute as the Lakers have been over time they also blunder. They did draft someone named Earl Jones. And Ken Barlow. David Rivers. Sam Jacobson. It happens. All that is expected is a shrug followed by honesty. Tell the truth, say it out loud, if not to the public, then at least to yourself. We were wrong. It won’t change anything, what is done is done. But reflection helps avoid mistakes in the future. Mitch Kupchak knows this, he does. And yet he has no regrets about Steve Nash. And why would he? Because once upon a time Mitch Kupchak was a free agent. He signed with the Lakers in 1981 and then he shattered his knee. He would not play again for two years. So in a way Mitch Kupchak understands Steve Nash and empathizes with Steve Nash and is patient with Steve Nash because once upon a time Mitch Kupchak was Steve Nash.
Kupchak’s career was rising after he won a NBA title with the Washington Bullets in 1978, his second year in the league. That year he averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds. In 1981, Magic Johnson thought Kupchak was the missing piece the Lakers needed to solidify the front court and he urged Jerry Buss to sign Mitch to a long term deal. What happened next was fate. Or sorrow. Mitch played the first 26 games of the season as the starting power forward. He averaged 8 rebounds, a career high. He shot 57% from the field, a career high. He averaged 31 minutes, a career high. He had 25 points against the Blazers. 20 points against the Sonics. 21 points against the Suns. 25 points against the Spurs. And then on December 19th, against the San Diego Clippers, on the road, Kupchak tore up his knee, shredded it. It was an injury so devastating it would change the arc of his career, divide it into before and after, before the knee injury and what he was when it all ended for Mitch Kupchak, a player on one leg. He was someone who had scored in double digits and pulled down rebounds and made 52% of his shots. He was used to playing 23 minutes a game. But after his two year recovery his career was irreconcilable. His averages dropped to 5 points and 3 rebounds and 12 minutes a game.
It was not 26 games for Steve Nash but one game, opening night in which he looked lost and unsure of himself. Then the next night in Portland the collision with Damien Lillard. Since then Steve Nash has been unremarkable, not the Hall of Fame player, unworthy of nine million dollars a year. He is a hybrid, on some possessions a shooting guard, on other possessions a point guard. There are isolated games of brilliance, a slow trip down the Steve Nash memory lane even if it is not the same magical quality. But his 40th birthday performance was a pleasure to behold. Last March, against the Kings he played 35 minutes and had 19 points and 12 assists. But the next night, in a return to Phoenix, Steve played 31 minutes, had 19 points but only 4 assists and the Lakers lost by 23. Such is the annotated version of the Steve Nash Years, the Golden Years of Steve Nash. He plays a few games, he is broken, he plays a few games, he is broken.
In June, in 1985, in game 6, in the Boston Garden it all came full circle for Kupchak, everything about his playing career, the glory and the suffering, the obedience and the grief. Kupchak played 20 minutes, the most playoff minutes he had played since he was with the Washington Bullets. He missed 4 out of 5 shots but hit 4 out of 6 free throws. He had 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and 6 points and they were the greatest 6 points of his career because he did it in the old Boston Garden, he did it in a series clinching game, he did it when his career had been in a coma for the last four years, he did it because he had to prove something to himself and to the Lakers who signed him to a long term deal. The Lakers did something they had never done before, they won a title in Boston. And Kupchak was a big reason why.
So this is what they mean when they talk about one player resembling the next. Sometimes it is not about the position you play or how your game evolves but it is about what happened to you, what the game did to you in the end. Ever career has some sort of redeeming value. This is why Kupchak has no regrets about signing Steve Nash to a deal that overpaid him or about Steve’s injury fate or the expectations that have gone unfulfilled. Kupchak understands careers from the bottom up, they have a transitional nature. He does not expect Steve Nash to be the Steve Nash of 2006 just as the Lakers did not expect Mitch Kupchak to be the Mitch Kupchak of 1978; the past is the past, it is buried there. But Kupchak knows what it feels like to be so close to your career but so far away from your career you do not even recognize it. He knows the pain of owing an organization something you may never be able to pay and yet they still have faith in you, still trust you. Of course the Steve Nash signing for 9 million dollars was a mistake. Of course it was. But the last person you will ever hear say it is the one who signed a long term deal himself and then was horribly injured. He tried to make amends. He couldn’t. He contributed to a championship. That is all there is to say. That and once upon a time Mitch Kupchak was on his way to a special career. Until a game against the Clippers. And then he was never the same.