Because now and then Kobe Bryant demands personal attention Mitch Kupchak met with the Lakers star in a private meeting. The intention was to clear the air. In the meeting, as described by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kupchak reassured Bryant that next year was not going to be a “wasted year.” Kupchak reaffirmed his position that the Lakers were going to be competitive, just as they have always been throughout their history. The Lakers were going to add a top level star in the next three years whether it be Lebron James, Kevin Love or Kevin Durant. In essence, nothing about this horrible season has changed the culture of the Lakers front office. This is still the team that Dr. Jerry Buss built. His guiding light still influences their behavior.
The meeting was an important gesture on the part of Kupchak and one more piece of evidence on why Kupchak deserved the extension he received. Certain situations need a father. They need someone to smooth everything over. A player of Kobe’s influence, emotions, tendency towards rage and competitiveness have put him in a unique position where he has earned the right to be considered. As Kobe put it, he goes out and gives 100%, he joyfully sacrifices. But there has to be reciprocity. He needs to know the front office is going to do the same. These Kupchak meetings are part of how you keep the ship intact from the inside out so there is not a riot on deck. It does something else too, something practical. It reminds Kobe of his importance in the organization. Often with a season like this and an injured player and so much misery the small things get lost in the details of the worst Lakers team in Los Angeles Lakers history. Slice it any way you want. Kobe still matters and Kupchak knows it.
But Kupchak has a line in the sand. He told Sam Amick of USA Today that Kobe is not going to be consulted about the decision on Mike D’antoni. In that Kupchak was being sly. He doesn’t have to consult Kobe about D’antoni. It is not a secret. The world know. Kobe prides himself on toughness and dedication to details and perfectionism. Kobe hates mistakes and D’antoni tolerates mistakes and there is no middle ground. Add to that, Kobe’s disdain for D’antoni’s small ball offense because once again it eliminates toughness. He hates his lax principles on defense and rebounding. And as if that wasn’t enough, the absence of a winning psychology rankles Kobe. Winning is a culture. Winning is taught. The losing makes Kobe climb up a wall.
But Kupchak’s philosophy as a general manager has always been the same; the beauty of Kupchak is his steadiness. He just doesn’t change. In his world players play, coaches coach. Kupchak could have hired Phil Jackson in 2012 to appease Dwight Howard and lure him into staying. But Kupchak went with D’antoni. And this is where we are.
With the Kupchak plan Kobe does not necessarily have to be a follower just a silent observer. A willing participant. The Lakers can’t afford for Kobe to go rogue on them, not before the plan has yet to get off the ground. He needs the Lakers spiritual leader on the island, not off. It doesn’t take much for a fish to rot.
Kupchak admitted to the unknown variables. The Lakers do not know where they are going to be in the draft lottery. Even when they do know their slot so much depends on who is taken ahead of them.
In 2005, the last year the Lakers were in the lottery, the Lakers expected Toronto to select Andrew Bynum. The Lakers were leaning towards Connecticut power forward Charlie Villenueva. But Toronto took Villeneuva and Bynum dropped to 10th. It is part of the draft culture. Nothing goes according to plan. But any of the top 5 will fit into the Lakers needs, that is how bare the cupboard is. They need a center- Joel Embiid. They need a wing player- Andrew Wiggins. They need a rebounder- Aaron Gordon. They need a power forward- Julius Randle. They need a point guard- Dante Exum. They need a polished player- Jabari Parker. Who they draft will say a lot about the direction they intend to go in. A front court player means they can bring Gasol back at a reduced rate. A guard means they are going to have to find a rebounder and rim protector in free agency. Of course Kupchak is not revealing who he is targeting. It is the Kupchak way.
The only crack in the Kupchak plan is Kupchak himself now that he has his extension. He has never built a team before. Jerry West added Kobe and Shaq. And Robert Horry. And Rick Fox. He drafted Derek Fisher. For the past few years Kupchak has been filling in the blanks, adding here and there. This is his first time building an entire team from scratch and no one knows what his philosophy is. Is it a small team but quick defensively? Or size in the paint and rebounding? Or up tempo? How about half court? The only way to judge Kupchak is to look at his choices of the past few years, since the Pau Gasol deal.
2008 draft- In the second round the Lakers drafted Joe Crawford, a shooting guard from Kentucky. He played with the D-Fenders for two years. Then the Knicks. He went to China and then Israel. He has not played in two years.
2009 draft-The Lakers drafted combo guard Toney Douglass in the first round then traded him to the Knicks. Douglass has played for the Rockets, Kings, Warriors and now the Miami Heat. In the second round the Lakers drafted Patrick Beverley. He was then traded to the Heat. That summer Beverley joined a team in Russia and then played in Greece. He came back to the NBA and signed with the Rockets and is a key defender in their backcourt. The Lakers drafted Chinemelu Elonu a 6’10” power forward with the 59th pick. He never played in the NBA, he plays in Europe. Misses: They could have drafted Danny Green or Patty Mills.
2010 draft-The Lakers drafted Devin Ebanks in the second round who made the team and played for the Lakers until this year. Devin is currently in the D-League. In the same round they drafted Derrick Caracter, a forward. He played for the Lakers a couple years and then the D-League and then Europe. He is back in the D-League.
2011 draft- The Lakers had four second round picks. They drafted Darius Morris, a point guard. He played for them until this year. This year he was in the D-league, on the 76ers, the Grizzlies, now he is back in the D-league. They drafted Andrew Goudelock, a shooting guard. He played for them a year. He went to the D-league and now is in Russia. They drafted Chukwudiebere Maduabum, a forward. He played in the D-league and is now playing in Mongolia. They drafted Ater Majok, a forward. He never played in the NBA but plays in Taiwan. Misses: They could have drafted Isaiah Thomas.
2013 draft- The Lakers drafted Ryan Kelly.
In all, in the past 6 years of drafting, only one Lakers draft pick is a consistent rotation player- Patrick Beverly. Toney Douglass plays when Dwayne Wade is not in the lineup. The rest never made the NBA or played for a short time for the Lakers and are now in the D-league or in Europe. The Lakers could have drafted Isaiah Thomas or Kent Bazemore or Danny Green. But in all fairness second round picks are all gambles, most picks never see any time on an NBA court. This year the Lakers only have their first round lottery pick. Their second round pick belongs to Phoenix. As does next year’s first round pick. Next year’s second round pick belongs to Orlando, from the Dwight Howard trade. So this year’s pick means everything.
One more thing Mitch Kupchak said. He told Sam Amick that the fans, at least most of them were “ pretty good” with what went on this year. Only a handful were disgruntled. Kupchak is right. And Kupchak is so so wrong. Yes the fans understand about this year. But they are still angry about it. It is painful to watch a team give up 49 points in a quarter like they did last night. Or lose to the Clippers by 48. Or lose to every lottery team except the Celtics. Or show no interest in the values that made the Lakers great: post play and defense and toughness. It is painful to see no one in the front office have anger about losing. Kobe’s rages resonate. He understands us. Does the front office?
There is not much time left before this sickness of a season ends and the next one begins. The lottery is next month and then the draft. And then free agency. This is the summer of Mitch. He has his extension. He has his plan. His has the Buss children’s full support. He has Kobe on his side. Now he has to make it all count. He has to.