Cap space, quality free agents and Mitch Kupchak magic was supposed to relieve the burden of angry Lakers fans who were held hostage for much of last year, a season in which trust was in short supply. No longer present was the championship ethic Dr. Buss had nurtured for decades that felt so familiar. The principles of success were cast aside in favor of less money, losses and draft picks and there was nothing profound about the results. There was only this to linger over: Kobe’s Achilles, D’antoni’s hire, Dwight’s defection, Nash’s injury- a price had to be paid the hard way.
Yearning for change, anticipating July and the mythical page turning, softened even the most die-hard Lakers cynic who no longer believed in Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss. They thought-cautiously- it would be a new chapter for the Lakers going forward.
But here we are. With the month half over, almost all of the heavy lifting done, the ink dry on contracts, a frenzy of players changing addresses and players being overpaid- this is what the Lakers can claim. Jeremy Lin. The re-signing of players who are hardly difference makers. No All-Star signings for Mitch Kupchak in 2014.
If Mitch Kupchak excels at one thing it is acquiring past their prime All- Star players such as Mitch Richmond (2001), Gary Payton (2003), Karl Malone (2003), and Steve Nash (2012). He has never convinced a free agent under the age of 30 to come to Los Angeles. He struck out last year with Dwight Howard. This year he and the Lakers front office put all of their efforts into a Carmelo Anthony dream that they knew was not going to come true.
Carmelo has never been associated with bravery and that is what it takes to leave a city of New York, travel across the country, sign on to be the face of the Lakers for the next six or seven years. Carmelo is the sort of athlete comfortable with safety; it was why he engineered a trade back to the place where he was born. His cross country summer of egocentricity was exactly what he wanted it to be. A two week curtain call. Applause and begging were the rules of the day and for what? Carmelo’s “decision” was already decided before he even began this spectacle.
Besides Carmelo, there were other quality players on the market for Mitch Kupchak to target, multi-skilled athletes that support stars. Lance Stephenson, Trevor Ariza, Evan Turner, Greg Monroe, Luol Deng were available. But because the Lakers only want 2 year deals, and because the upper management occupies a false notion that players want money more than they want security, a coach and a quality roster, they found themselves as an outsider. Once again.
Lebron James left Miami because he saw his team couldn’t win. He took less money. Pau Gasol left the Lakers because he saw they couldn’t win. He took less money. Modern players are willing to endure financial sacrifices to be part of a complete roster that can do things in the playoffs. With that as a backdrop, Mitch Kupchak had his greatest failure this summer. His roster is incomplete and in a competitive Western Conference it is going to struggle (again) to win.
Mitch Kupchak’s strength is taking advantage of desperate general managers. He did it a long time ago when Pau Gasol was on the market. Gasol was a deal designed for the Bulls but Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls owner, balked at paying the luxury tax. The Lakers were given 24 hours to say yes or no on Gasol. They said yes.
This year, Darryl Morey, the brilliant general manager of the Houston Rockets, desperate to sign Chris Bosh, had to move Jeremy Lin to free up cap space. Mitch Kupchak was a taker but only if the Rockets gave up a first round draft pick for 2015- a year the Lakers did not have a first rounder. Morey, who once called Mitch Kupchak the best negotiator in the NBA, had no other choice. He had to package the pick with Lin.
Mitch Kupchak’s off season has not been a total disaster. His selection of Julius Randle in the draft was particularly brilliant. As he showed in the summer league game against the Golden State Warriors, Randle is a multi-dimensional player with a sought after competitive fire. Randle can put the ball on the floor, create off the dribble, pump fake to get his shot off, get into the seams and pass to the corner. He has the it factor. Simply when he is in the game you watch what he is going to do.
Jordan Clarkson has been a Mitch Kupchak revelation as well. Clarkson has been the Lakers best player in summer league. He is another player that when he is on the floor you can’t take your eyes off of him. He can play the point or the 2 guard. He relentlessly drives to the rim in a Russell Westbrook I-don’t-care-who-is-in-my-way mentality. Some of his shot selections are questionable and reckless but he has a lot of arrogance on the floor, he isn’t afraid and he is a catalyst and probably the fastest point guard the Lakers have ever had. He had the game winning tip in against the Warriors on Monday night.
Once the Carmelo Anthony bubble burst Mitch Kupchak decided to wait for next year. He overpaid Jordan Hill on a one year deal. He signed Nick Young, a fan favorite, but a signal to the rest of the league that the Lakers weren’t serious about the playoffs. There are a few more roster spots available which he will use for some of the mediocrity of last year like Wesley Johnson and Ryan Kelly. The Lakers may even bring Earl Clark back on a minimum deal. And as of yet they don’t have a starting small forward.
In the summer of 2015 the Lakers may indeed have two picks in the draft: a lottery pick, and Houston’s pick. They will have erased $8 million off the cap from Jeremy Lin’s $14 million salary, $9 million of Steve Nash’s salary, $9 million of Jordan Hill’s salary.
Once again Lakers fans will hold their breath in anticipation and optimism even as their disappointments will have some watching with their eyes half shut and fingers crossed. The 2015 class is deep: Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe this time Mitch Kupchak can land a free agent under the age of thirty. Until then the Lakers season will be high on excitement and short on execution with the playoffs a long shot.