Yesterday, in his media session, Mitch Kupchak was asked if this was the worst year he had ever experienced as Lakers General Manager. The 55 losses were the most in Lakers history, Los Angeles or Minneapolis. It was the first season in 20 years the Lakers did not have a twenty point scorer. It was the first season in 39 years the Lakers defense was the second worst in the NBA. Not to make light of how miserable it all was, but to Kupchak’s way of looking at the glass is half full, it wasn’t tragic. Once Kobe went down and then Pau suffered his maladies there was not much to be done. One year contracts meant there were no assets for trades or acquiring draft picks. “It was tough on our fans” Kupchak said. But for Mitch Kupchak? Not tough at all. He has been through worse.
In the 2004-05 season, the first without Shaquille O’Neal, the franchise was under incredible pressure to prove they had not made a mistake when, in effect, they chose Kobe or Shaq, the younger player vs. the player they thought only had 4 or 5 more years left. (They were right). By mid March injuries took their toll and the Lakers lost eight in a row and then they lost six in a row and they ended the season on a five game losing streak. Their defense was terrible, their offense wasn’t much better. Kobe missed sixteen games at the end, so did Lamar Odom. And Shaq was on his way to the Eastern Conference Finals which made people wonder: did the Lakers know what they were doing? Their coach had already quit because of the stress; the barbarians were at the gate. That year, in the lottery, the fan consensus was Sean May who had just won the title at North Carolina by using his size inside. The risky choice was Gerald Green, the high schooler. But the Lakers took Andrew Bynum which was as shocking as it was confusing, a high school player who was supposed to attend Connecticut. Jim Calhoun called Bynum on draft day “a project.”
Then in 2007 the Kobe rage year raised the stakes. Kobe’s emotions range from elated to disgusted depending on the Lakers won loss record. First, Kobe wanted Bynum to be traded for Jason Kidd. Kobe had suffered through Smush Parker and he was fed up with immature point guard play. Then Kobe just wanted out altogether. The version Mitch Kupchak loves to tell is that the Lakers didn’t trade Kobe—see we were patient. But that is a half truth. They didn’t trade Kobe because they couldn’t trade Kobe, not because they drew some imaginary line in the sand and said to him- no way. Kobe’s contract was prohibitive. He had a no-trade clause plus a trade kicker. Whoever took him would have to decimate their entire team and then their finances and what would that solve? They’d be back at the same place they were before Kobe arrived. But those posters from Bulls fans saying We Want Kobe were hilarious and added to Kupchak’s angst. Where Kupchak differed from his peers is that he didn’t let Kobe bully him, instead he banked on Kobe’s competitiveness. He knew Kobe wouldn’t pull a Tracy McGrady, he wouldn’t dare force his way out. Plus the Lakers had just brought Derek Fisher in to cool things down. They knew the team had all the leverage in the short term. Kobe was still two years away from free agency.
But take all of that, take Kobe wanting to burn the house down, take the Smush Parker years and Rudy Tomjanovich quitting and Phil Jackson gone, take drafting Javaris Crittendon who is now on trial for murder, take the D’antoni fiasco and Kobe’s ripped Achilles, none of that comes close to the year when Dr. Buss was diagnosed with cancer and fought through the treatments and eventually succumbed to his weakened body. The team is one thing; Mitch Kupchak loves the Lakers. But Dr. Buss was his friend and mentor and confidant and teacher. He loved him, and his absence, his face no longer in the building, is more sorrow than this season ever could bring.
So it is a ridiculous assumption- this being the worst year in Lakers history. A lot of losses does not make it the worse year. A lot of injuries does not make it the worse year. Amid everything that went wrong, and almost everything did go wrong, there was no player anger or coaching anger, no locker room divided. Just a lot of hurt players.
Things begin and things end, that is the silver lining in sports. Kupchak’s secret really wasn’t a secret. At the end of this year freedom and a pot of gold are waiting. For the first time in his front office career Kupchak can remake the roster in his own image. He can work his plan the way he wants to because for the first time since he became the Lakers General Manager he has control of how the team moves forward.
While the majority of Lakers fans suffered through each and every loss Mitch Kupchak, patient as always, was rewarded. The Lakers have a good shot to get into the top 5 of the lottery. He even said he thought there was a franchise player or two in the top 5. Add to that the new numbers by salary cap expert Larry Coon that predicts the salary cap will go up 5 million dollars next year. It is even more of a reason for Kupchak to forget all about what happened from December to April and focus on what is coming next.
Anyway you dice it Kupchak has a reason to feel good. He no longer has the day to day torture of box scores or injury reports or plain old fashion media bashing. Out of the playoffs the Lakers are invisible which means he can do his job the quiet way. Handle D’antoni. Plan for the lottery. Jump into the free agent market, all of it, without putting a hole in the boat. He can work the angles away from sight with pragmatism and toughness. That is just the way he likes it. Some people say: look at me. Kupchak says: look at what I’ve done.