A couple weeks back, the LA Times ran a piece ranking the six general managers of our local sports franchises. Not surprisingly, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak took home the blue ribbon. For each GM, author Helene Elliott picked a best and worst deal, and for Kupchak she chose his trade of Caron Butler for Kwame Brown as the low point in his tenure.
No doubt, Mitch got burned on that one. But at least Kwame's contract was large enough and expiring enough to serve as the cornerstone of the Pau Gasol deal a few years later. It's much harder to identify a silver lining in what would've been my choice for Kupchak's most egregious whiff: the six year, $30 million contract extension he gave Luke Walton in the summer of 2007.
One thing GMs should never do is value players based on peak-year performance. Another thing they shouldn't do is give long-term deals to easily replaceable role players. Luke's extension wrapped both sins into one tidy little package. In 2006-07, Luke had an OK season on an OK team. His numbers, though the best of his career, were basically dead average for a starting small forward. He was already having trouble staying healthy, having played just 60 games that season, and he was 27 years old, meaning he was never going to get that much better. Maybe he'd improve a wee bit, maybe he'd catch a few breaks on the health front, but what you saw in 2006-07 was pretty close to the best case scenario.
Mitch - and God bless the man, he's done great work for the Lakers - gambled not only that Luke would repeat his best-ever season, but that he'd do so for the next six years. The sad trombone sound was invented for decisions like these.
To be honest, Luke's no longer very good. To be extremely honest, he's terrible. His decline phase began the moment his extension kicked in, and this past season he achieved an especially profound state of uselessness. He was the worst player on the team and one of the worst in the NBA. His performance answered a question nobody was asking, namely: what would it be like to watch Adam Morrison play without a moustache?
Serial injuries have eradicated what little athleticism Luke once had. He has no ability to shake a defender or generate his own look. He's not strong enough to work in the post. He makes outside shots approximately never. There's really nothing he can do to create value at the offensive end of the floor, and on defense he's nothing but a warm body.
Luke's virtues have always been cast in abstract terms. He has a "high basketball IQ," it's said. He "knows the Triangle." Phil Jackson "trusts him." What this past season demonstrated is that none of this matters when you lack the rudimentary physical tools to compete as an NBA player. Wielding a high basketball IQ and knowing the Triangle are admirable secondary traits that do little good when the defense doesn't have to guard you because you can't knock down an open shot. And the Triangle's gone now, so we can scratch that off the rapidly shrinking list of reasons Luke Walton should ever see the court.
For all the talk of how Phil supposedly trusted him, Luke had a hell of a time getting minutes this season. And at the small-forward position, there were minutes to be had. Between Ron Artest's early-season struggles and Matt Barnes's midseason injury, opportunities were there for Luke to claim a spot in the regular rotation. No dice. Phil did almost anything - running out big lineups, small lineups, lineups involving Kobe Bryant at the three - to keep Luke on the bench. In the playoffs Luke got nine straight DNP-CD's, finally appearing with less than five minutes left in the season at the end of the Lakers' Game Four massacre in Dallas.
His insane contract has had, and continues to have, real consequences for the Lakers' roster. Though their payroll has been the league's highest for a few years now, the Lakers don't operate with an unlimited budget. There've been several cost-saving moves in recent years - the sale of draft picks, the trade of Sasha Vujacic, the refusal to sign temporary big man help last winter when Andrew Bynum was still out and Pau Gasol was wearing down from heavy minutes - that could've been avoided had Luke not been scarfing down $5 million or so a year. Thanks to backloading in his deal, the Lakers will pay him almost $11.5 million over the next two seasons.
In the meantime, what should Mike Brown do with the guy? How about park him at the end of the bench and pray his services don't become necessary. Artest and Barnes will be the small-forward regulars, and whatever playing time is left should be used to see what Devin Ebanks can do. Perhaps in 2013, Luke's (mercifully) expiring deal can serve as a trade chit. Until then, he'll be an ever-present reminder not to lavish six-year extensions on guys you can easily live without.
Season Grade: F.
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