ARCADIA, CA - APRIL 03: General Manager Mitch Kupchak of the Los Angeles Lakers stands in the Winner's Circle before the 73rd running of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 3, 2010 at Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California. (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
Since the end of the 2010 NBA season, most of the members of the Los Angeles Lakers organization have been enjoying their summer hiatus. Some of the players went to South Africa to check out the World Cup. Some went to Asia. Pau Gasol even scrubbed in on a surgery. I imagine the less wealthy members of the staff filled their time with less exotic pursuits, but there are plenty of coaches, trainers, security, PR people, and administrative assistants who are enjoying the fruits of a well-earned vacation right about now.
But not Mitch Kupchak. He's been one busy dude. Now, with news that the Lakers two 2nd round draft picks are either signed or agreed to terms, he can stand over the precipice of what he's accomplished, and know that his work is pretty much done until October. I'm sure his plane tickets to Aruba are already purchased. Before he goes, I just wanted to deliver a message from all of us in Lakers Nation.
Take a bow, Mitch, take a bow.
Actually, Mitch got a head start on this off-season, heading off what would have been his two biggest headaches before they had a chance to cause any heart palpitations. He extended Pau Gasol's contract just before Christmas, and locked up Kobe Bryant long term just before the playoffs. With the two cornerstones of the budding dynasty locked up, Mitch still had plenty of work ahead of him once the season ended.
The quick turnaround from the end of the NBA Finals to the draft didn't phase Kupchak. The Lakers had two picks in the 2010 draft, both in the 2nd round. The Lakers chose Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. The initial reaction was somewhere along the lines of "Not bad for two picks starting in the mid 2nd round". But the Las Vegas Summer League bumped that somewhere in between "Awesome 2nd round picks by the Lakers" to "Holy shit how did they get those guys in the 2nd round." Depending on who you talk to, Caracter was one of the top 5 players in the summer league, and Ebanks wasn't far behind. All in all, a solid start to the summer.
Then free agency started, and with 6 free agents (admittedly none all that important, save maybe Derek Fisher) on the roster, Kupchak clearly had his work cut out for him shoring up the end of his bench. Amid persistent rumors that Jerry Buss wanted to tighten his purse strings, none of us knew whether Kupchak would have the freedom to pursue anybody, or if his entire aim would be towards decreasing payroll. His first act was to allow Jordan Farmar to become an unrestricted free agent, not even tendering the qualifying offer that would have allowed the Lakers to match any offer for Farmar, a clear indication that both player and team were ready to part ways. He turned around and signed Farmar's replacement, Steve Blake, almost instantly. At 4 million per year, and 4 years total, Blake's contract seems just about right. He's actually making less than he did last season, and at 29, he's not really in danger of falling off a cliff athletically in the next few years. Blake is also a perfect fit in the triangle, in so much as you can know that ahead of time. He's an unselfish player who can drain the open 3, so if he gets a good grasp of the offense, he will be just another pea in the pod.
But the man ahead of Blake on the depth chart was also in doubt, and after stinking it up for the full 82 game regular season, Derek Fisher proved once again how indispensable he is to have around playoff time. In a contentious negotiation that dragged on a little bit (similar to the Lamar Odom situation last year), Fisher and the Lakers finally agreed to a 3 year, 10 million contract. The length of the contract widened a few eyes around Lakerland, but otherwise, it's a reasonable compromise between what Fish wanted and what the team wanted.
At that point, we figured Mitch had pretty much finished bringing in important pieces. The Lakers could resign Shannon Brown, DJ Mbenga, and the two draft picks, and pretty much call it a day. This notion fit in line with the whole "Buss wants to play on the cheap" meme. But it turned out to be far from the truth.
Instead, Kupchak continued to add pieces. Theo Ratliff (ancient, but still mildly effective) was added as the replacement to fan favorite DJ Mbenga (and yes, that is an upgrade), but the far bigger move was the Lakers signing Matt Barnes to a two year deal (2nd year player option) with what remained of their mid level exception. Honestly, despite the fact that he's paid less than Steve Blake, Barnes might be the bigger name. And, with Luke Walton's health for the upcoming season unknown, the Lakers did not want to have to go through another season with Kobe Bryant seeing significant time at the 3. Just for kicks, they also brought back Shannon Brown
Now, with the Lakers agreeing to terms with Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter (who got a guaranteed contract as the 58th pick in the draft, which is probably unprecedented), the Lakers offseason has come full circle, and Mitch can wrap it all up with a nice tidy bow. Last year, the Lakers payroll was $91.3M. This year, it will be just about $93M. The raises written into the contracts of Kobe Bryant (~$2M), Pau Gasol (~$1M) and Ron Artest($600K) more than make up that difference. So, Mitch Kupchak essentially swapped Steve Blake for Jordan Farmar (upgrade), Matt Barnes for Adam Morrison(major upgrade), DJ Mbenga for Theo Ratliff (minor upgrade), Derrick Caracter for Josh Powell (can it really be a downgrade?), and Devin Ebanks for thin air (upgrade), and in doing so, he saved the Lakers money. That's a pretty spectacular off-season to anybody not named John Hollinger.
So I know I'm not alone in saying "Thanks for a job well done, Mitch". One of these days, we (and the rest of the NBA faithful) will give this guy the credit he deserves. In the meantime, go ahead and kick your feet back and just let your work speak for itself. Hopefully the back to back championships are only the beginning of that statement.
Salary figures courtesy of basketball-reference.com and Shamsports.com