The Lakers Next Coach and Other Kupchak Decisions


Feb 27, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak attends the NCAA basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats and the Southern California Trojans at the Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It does not matter that the trade deadline is seven days away. It is of passing interest that Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak is consumed with trying to get an additional draft pick in exchange for Pau Gasol. Perhaps it will happen and everyone will be surprised that Pau is actually part of a successful deal after three years of being dangled in trades like fresh fruit on a vine. That is the here and now. But in eight days, once the deadline passes, no matter what bag of tricks Kupchak reaches into, he will not be able to exhale. So give him a day or two off. But waiting for him is a bigger job than dragging up a wrecked ship. The Lakers are the Titanic, a ship broken into pieces. You can’t repair it- it has sunk. You have to build something for scratch.

That begs the question: How exactly is Kupchak going to rebuild the Lakers into a winner? How is he going to restore the Lakers brand after this dreadful season tarnished its championship luster whereas they are considered a joke? How is he going to reward the fans for their patience for getting through this year? Basketball fans in Los Angeles watch the Lakers at twice the rate they watch the Clippers. When and with whom are the fans going to be rewarded?

There is a long to-do list. But Mitch’s first priority is to figure out what the Lakers are as a ballclub. What do they stand for? What is their intention and purpose? What is their identity going to be for the next few years? Are they a half court team like Indiana? An open court team like the Heat? A guard oriented team like the Suns and Warriors? Jerry Buss was devoted to Showtime but that era is dead man walking. The players skills have changed. Point guards are explosive talents and scorers, centers make perimeter jumpers, small forwards are athletic and versatile. Kupchak has to determine what the Lakers are going to be as they move into these last two years of Kobe Bryant’s career and beyond. Is Kupchak happy with the Lakers making the playoffs, being the fifth or sixth seed? Or is he trying to build a contender right away? If that is the case you have to look at three areas: offensive rebounding, points in the paint and guard play. Are the Lakers going to be explosive on the perimeter? Is their offense going to start on the inside and then go out or are they willing to sacrifice points in the paint for three point shots? These are the practical decisions Kupchak has to make his first priority. And then he has to convince everyone in the Lakers front office that his vision is what will guide them for the next five years. Everyone has to be on board.

It is hard to cross a river when you are stuck in the middle. Kupchak has to decide on a coach. The defense only of Mike Brown was not the answer. The offense only of Mike D’antoni was not the answer. He needs a hybrid to sell to the caliber of free agents he hopes to bring in. They are going to want to see a head coach in place that has been a proven success with top caliber talent. It’s a players league. George Karl coached Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson and Gary Payton and reached the NBA Finals in 1996. Avery Johnson won a title with the Spurs and coached Dirk Nowitzki and made the NBA Finals in 2006. Nate McMillan played in the finals as a player. Byron Scott won three titles and coached Jason Kidd and took the Nets to back to back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Stan Van Gundy coached Dwight Howard and took the Magic to the Finals in 2009. Jeff Van Gundy coached Patrick Ewing and went to the NBA Finals in 1999.

In July, Kupchak is going to sell the Lakers to numerous free agents who have other choices. Who are they? Of course he will talk to Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. But what about Rudy Gay if Rudy opts out of his deal? Does he think Rudy is worth 8-12 million? Does he think Luol Deng’s defense will fit in with whoever coach he decides to hire? What about Gordon Hawyard? Or Evan Turner? Will he sign Eric Bledsoe to an offer sheet although he knows Phoenix will match? Is he going to pitch Kyle Lowry, a known headache for the coaches who have had him run their offense? Who is he going to get to control the paint? Chris Bosh? Despite Bosh’s third man status in Miami he is the most verstatile big man in the game. He can rebound, hit threes, score twenty five points a game, block shots, make clutch shots. He has innate instincts for playing in the paint and a high basketball I.Q. It was his rebound and his pass to Ray Allen that won game 6 in the NBA Finals earning the Heat one last game.

Of the players Kupchak currently has, who stays and who goes? Jordan Farmar had a calf injury in training camp followed by two hamstring injuries. Can his body hold up? Knee problems at 22 are a red flag so how does Kupchak approach a deal for Xavier Henry? Is Wes Johnson’s athleticism enough to warrant a minimum deal even though he is a mediocre shooter and gambles on defense and mentally checks out of games? Kendall Marshall averages nine assists but he is too slow at the rim and too sorrowful a mid range shooter to be a starting point guard. Is he the answer off the bench? Or do you resign Steve Blake? Who gets the mid level exception this year? Nick Young with his crazy shots early in the shot clock that have no possibility of going in will drive an experienced coach crazy plus he averages 1 rebound. What about Jodie Meeks the Lakers unsung hero, the hardest worker besides Kobe.

Fans want to know how Kupchak intends to solve his athleticism problem. The Lakers need a creator. They need someone to run the pick and roll and get into the paint and deliver the ball to shooters. They need a rebounder who is physical enough to block out and athletic enough to fight for rebounds and then complete put backs. They need a reliable second scorer, someone who can make shots, a 46% shooter. Is this where the lottery pick comes in? Andrew Wiggins who can defend and can beat his man off the dribble. Or Dante Exum who is a creator. Or Joel Embid who blocks shots. Or Jabari Parker who is a polished scorer.

Mitch Kupchak is a patient man. He does not hurry. He is a competent general manager; he pulled off the Pau deal. Those are the coattails he rides. He brought in Dwight. But the reality of his particular job is that he works in Los Angeles which means he has to bring in star players and surround them with players who hustle and play hard. The Lakers do not have the international scouting skill of the Spurs or the evaluation talent of the Thunder; the Lakers like players who create buzz but who also can deliver in big games.

We throw the word legacy around a lot. What Mitch does this summer will define his legacy as a general manager. He has a lot riding on this. No longer is he in the shadow of Jerry West or Jerry Buss. For the first time since 1993 the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the NBA. Where they go from here, how Mitch Kupchak starts from scratch with very few contracts, talented free agents available, a lottery pick and fans who are watching will determine the rest of the story. The Titanic sunk. It did. But not everyone died. There were survivors.