LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16: Lamar Odom #7 of the Dallas Mavericks is hugged by Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers as Odom enters the game at Staples Center on January 16, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
It is wrong to judge a book when the book is only half written. It's unfair to measure a man's performance when outside events are responsible for his failures. It's foolish to throw away a history of strong work on the basis of one short period of failure. All of these statements can be used to explain why it's not a good idea to condemn Mitch Kupchak for failing to put together a roster that meets the high standards of the illustrious Los Angeles Lakers franchise. None of these statements can prevent us from doing so anyways.
The Los Angeles Lakers are not a very good team. They will (probably) make the playoffs. They may win a playoff series. Anything else would have to be considered a surprise. For a team that has one of the best cores in the league in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, that's not good enough, which is a perfect description of everything surrounding those three guys. Not good enough. In fact, not even close to good enough. Outside the Big Three, the Lakers probably have the worst 4-15 roster in the league. And sadly, despite all those mitigating statements explained above, the blame for it has to be at the feet of one Mitch Kupchak.
Over his career, Kupchak has been a pretty solid GM, although it's always been unclear how much of his success has been tied to other men. He sold Shaq off (a move which weakened the Lakers in the short term, but allowed them to reload within 5 years), but that might have been at the insistence of Jerry Buss and/or Kobe Bryant. He drafted Andrew Bynum, but Jimmy Buss certainly seems to have co-opted it as his braintrust. He traded a bunch of nothing (or so we thought) for Pau Gasol, but that might have been more of an example of right place, right time than of any actual ability as a negotiator (or if you to prefer to think of it this way, which GM wouldn't make that trade). He created a championship squad basically from scratch, but the one player he started out with happens to be one of the best to ever lace em up. There are still plenty of people out there who are unwilling to give Mitch Kupchak much credit for all the success the Lakers have had under his watchful eye, and they have their reasons.
But a closer look shows that there have been subtle moves along the way which were vital to the creation of a championship core. Getting Trevor Ariza for bit part players Brian Cook and Maurice Evans is one example. Ariza had all been given up on after four unremarkable seasons in the league. He enjoyed his best season as a pro as a member of the Lakers the following season before he and Ron Artest famously managed a free agency trade by signing for opposite teams at the same price. Even as we struggle through the third year of a 5 year contract for the newly named Metta World Peace, Ariza hasn't fared any better in Houston and New Orleans, and Artest most certainly delivered in the biggest moments possible in bringing the Lakers championship #2 of this era. Kupchak also got Shannon Brown thrown in to a deal that appeared on the surface to be a pure salary dump (in trading the unused Vlad Radmonovic for cult-hero Adam Morrison), and while long time readers will know I've never been all that enamored with Shannon, there's no doubt Brown played a far more important role off the Lakers bench than could have been predicted at the time of the trade. These are the types of glue moves a team has to make to surround their top tier talent (if they are lucky enough to acquire some) with the right pieces to win championships, and Mitch Kupchak does have a history of making those moves. There have been mistakes along the way, ranging from unimpressive (Theo Ratliff) to stupid (Sasha Vujacic's midlevel contract) to ghastly (Luke Walton), but the successes have always outnumbered, or at least dwarfed, the failures.
But, starting with last year, Mitch has been on a streak of bad luck/performance that has transformed the Lakers into the middling, top heavy squad they are today. Last season, Steve Blake was supposed to solve problems at point guard and provide some outside shooting, but he failed to do both. The Lakers needed a big man to keep the minutes down for their star trio of Gasol, Bynum and Odom, but he only brought in Ratliff, who contributed nothing, and Pau Gasol ended up fading terribly by season's end.
And then we come to this season. Yes, if Kupchak had succeeded in landing Chris Paul, we might never be having this conversation. Yes, the reason why he didn't succeed was completely out of his hands. But, past that potential home run, the Lakers front (office) man has hit nothing but grounders. Letting Shannon Brown walk was probably the right move (I certainly thought so), but failing to replace him with any kind of shooting guard help has kept Kobe Bryant's minutes high, and has forced the Lakers to rely on the play of two rookies once Steve Blake went down with an injury (Andrew Goudelock has recently rewarded the Lakers with strong play, but his, and more importantly Darius Morris', struggles have caused the Lakers to play some terrible lineups whenever Kobe gets some much needed rest). Jason Kapono has been abominable, shooting just 30% from three point range when the only reason he is getting any playing time is because the Lakers are desperate for someone who can drain threes. And Josh McRoberts, who ended up as the Lakers "big" free agent signing by snagging the full (restricted) mid-level exception, has underwhelmed the coaches so much that he's played less than 5 minutes a game in the last four, and received the old DNP-CD in the Lakers' last contest. Troy Murphy has been passable, but he's hardly been dynamite.
Hanging like a shadow over all of these poor personnel moves is the one that continues to haunt us all like week-old Chinese food ... the fact that the Lakers traded away Lamar Odom, who might possibly have been the soul of the team, for nothing. Until the 9 million trade exception is turned around for a player of similar ability to LO, that trade will continue to stand as one of the most stunning, disappointing, and mystifyingly poor transactions in Lakers history. If LO were still here, the Lakers might not have wasted their only non-minimum contract on McRoberts. They might have been able to afford a halfway decent backup two guard. They might not have to trot out bench units that are guaranteed to lose 5-10 points off of any lead. If LO were still here, the Lakers would undoubtedly be better than they are now.
Mitch Kupchak's had a decent run in charge of the Lakers' front office, and I don't expect that run to end anytime soon. He's been at the helm of some risky transactions; some have worked, and some haven't. I expect there to be more, maybe this season, maybe next, maybe in the future. The Lakers will always be a franchise that shoots for the stars, and sometimes that means a harsh crash back down to earth. Still, when the book is written on Mitch Kupchak, or he finds himself in want of a job someday, don't be surprised if that resume of his skips a year or three after 2010.