I'm going to throw out what's sure to be a universally unpopular notion - it's really tough to be a Lakers fan. Really tough.
Thousands of miles away, I just heard Milwaukee Bucks fans dry heave and the entire city of Cleveland burst into uproarious laughter. But if I can get past the furious curse-laden tirades emanating from the Bay area for a second, let me make my case.
Every single year, Lakers fans expect their team to contend for a title. It doesn't matter if our point guard running the offense is a 37 year-old 6'2" shooting guard, or if Kobe's fellow starters are named Smush, Kwame, Lamar and Luke. If it happens, great! There will be parades and the usual joy and revelry associated with winning the Larry O'Brien trophy. But in the end, the Lakers met the expectation.
And when they don't win the title? Absolute, utter, abject failure. A Western Conference crown, multiple All-Star berths, miracle game-winning shots in 0.4 seconds or less, 81 points in four quarters, All-NBA selections - none of that matters if the Lakers don't win the title. You know what? That's a hard way to live through your fandom. Some of the best parts of being a NBA fan are simply enjoying the experience of basketball and seeing how well your team executes on the hardwood. For other franchises, if you don't win the title? It happens, but at least you had a great playoff run. If your team is awful? You get to disassociate yourself with the season, but take joy in winning a big game or two. For Lakers fans, no matter what happens, if the end result isn't a parade, it's agony.
These are the expectations that GM Mitch Kupchak has to balance going into this offseason. Over and over again. But it's also what makes him worthy of our trust, and a label as one of the best front office managers in the game.
Since moving full-time into the General Manager's role for the Lakers in the 2000 season after the departure of Jerry West, Kupchak has been levied his fair share of criticism. The team went on to three NBA Finals and winning two of them in the ensuing four seasons, but the lion's share of the credit for that success went to West, who had been the primary architect of those title teams.
Mitch's first major decision was the trade of Shaquille O'Neal, then the best center in the league and one of the NBA's five best players, in an attempt to keep an unrestricted free agent in Kobe Bryant. For the rebuilding Lakers, Kupchak received a package of Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and a first round draft pick. At the time, the trade was slammed by all corners of the media and the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
However, over the next 3 years, Kupchak went on to build one of the most enduring and consistent models of winning Lakers basketball in team history. All remnants of the 2000-2002 title teams were jettisoned, save for Kobe Bryant, and the ensuing squad was rebuilt from Mitch's vision. Of course, the drafting of Andrew Bynum and the trade for Pau Gasol were key acquisitions that led directly to LA as title contenders for five years and counting, but the minor moves are some of the lesser known hallmarks of Mitch's career. Drafting Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, trading for Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown and the signing of Ron Artest were incredibly important moves to fill in the gaps around the superstars. You can't remember the 2009 and 2010 champion Lakers without thinking of those players, can you?
This isn't to say that Mitch's vision wasn't flexible. Ever a revisionist thinker, Mitch, along with Dr. Buss, realized that cutting the Phil Jackson era short was a mistake just a year into his first departure, and hired him back for another six season tenure. In the 2007 offseason, a medical ailment to Derek Fisher's daughter caused him to cut short his contract with the Jazz and forfeit his salary. Kupchak saw the leadership void left in Fisher's absence since leaving in free agency in 2004, and immediately resigned the Lakers co-captain. Just another two moves that led to two more titles.
This isn't just an enormously long-winded love letter to Mitch Kupchak, or a reminder to a Lakers fanbase who pondered offseason moves seconds after a Game 3 loss to the Nuggets in round 1 that we're in good hands. That's all pretty apparent from the mini-history less I just threw out there.
Mitch Kupchak, and now with VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss co-helming roster decisions, is a forward thinker. This was on display 8 years ago when Shaquille was traded, 7 years ago when Andrew Bynum was draft, 5 years ago when Kobe demanded Bynum be traded for an aging Jason Kidd, and just 8 months ago when Kupchak saw the gaping hole the Lakers had at point guard, and tried to acquire Chris Paul. Here we are in 2012, knowing that the pieces from the Shaq trade led to a title, Andrew Bynum as the second best center in the league and after a postseason with our point guard play letting us down, Pau being rendered inefficient with his place in Mike Brown's system and Lamar Odom trying to rehab himself from his worst season ever.
Mitch's moves seem to always be a cog within the great machinery of a grander scheme. Like switching a much younger Ariza for a veteran in Artest, or the CP3 trade that was highly questioned at the time it was thought legitimate, Kupchak's decisions might not always be clear immediately, but time has always had a way of sorting through the fog.
As Mitch himself has admitted, changes are coming, as soon as a month from now. No one, save for Kobe and his onerous contract, will be safe from moves that will no doubt reshape the team. Again, this isn't just a reminder of how well Kupchak has performed in his duties as GM. It's to remind everyone that the Lakers front office, like all parts of the organization, will make decisions that are a part of a long game model, not just what's right for the here and now.
This is what makes the Lakers the most enduring organization in not just the NBA, but professional sports. And it's also what makes it hard to be a Lakers fan. We expect the best because we've been given the best. Patience is not always a value best associated with Lakers fans, but it certainly is what we need going forward. Whatever happens, whether it's a trade of Pau for pieces, or cutting ties with a 25 year-old beast in the paint, I will be extremely wary in my criticism. I feel that Kupchak has earned it. Do you?