Friday, June 18, 2010

Kupchak Delivered These Titles

So the Los Angeles Lakers have won the 2010 NBA championship with a narrow Game 7 victory over Boston.

Of everyone in the Lakers' organization, the most underrated contributor to their recent run of success must be General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who is very, very good at his job. At the least, he should be deemed the Executive of the Half-Decade.

Trading Shaquille O'Neal in 2004 was wise, as it jump-started the inevitably required rebuilding of the erstwhile three-time titlists. The Lakers could have squeezed maybe a couple more title-contending years out of the Kobe-Shaq duo in 2005 and 2006, but O'Neal was growing increasingly contentious and unmotivated in L.A., on top of his natural aging process.

In that same summer, Kupchak elected not to re-sign Derek Fisher, as his gritty services would not be needed on a re-building team. Kupchak also traded Gary Payton and Rick Fox (likewise not needed) for Chris Mihm, a center who could replace O'Neal's services in the short term. The same trade also netted Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks, young 1s who could replace the point guarding offered by Payton and Fisher. Atkins started every game of the 2004-05 season for Los Angeles, delivering a steady 14 PPG.

Lamar Odom, obtained from Miami in the O’Neal trade, was a good piece for a future title contender. Certainly not the second-best player on a champion, but as we have actually seen, he is an extremely valuable contributor.

One year later, in summer 2005, Kupchak realized he needed to gamble on some young big men with high upside; thus, he drafted Andrew Bynum and traded Caron Butler for Kwame Brown. Helped by tutoring from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bynum developed into a championship-quality starting center (though he is injury-prone). Brown never improved much, though the Lakers were able to flip him (with a couple rookies and draft picks) for Pau Gasol halfway through the 2007-08 season.

Thus, the Lakers’ top 4 of Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, and Odom were set in February 2008. However, prior to that season, back in the summer of ’07, many pundits, and Kobe Bryant himself, questioned Kupchak’s long-term plan for returning the team to the top of the league, after three seasons without a playoff series win. “Ship his ass out!” Bryant pleaded ironically (referring to Bynum, in a putative trade for Jason Kidd) while kibitzing with two random dudes in a parking lot, as though Bryant himself were just a beer-bellied couch potato with opinions on everything hoopish.

In the 7 months following that incident, Kupchak refrained from the impulse to grant Bryant's trade request, then signed Derek Fisher, acquired Trevor Ariza by trade, then acquired Gasol in the 2008 trade that Gregg Popovich termed "beyond comprehension" for its one-sidedness.

Kupchak also proved a good drafter, taking Luke Walton in 2003, Sasha Vujacic in 2004, Bynum in 2005, and Jordan Farmar in 2006. All played meaningful minutes in the 2009 and 2010 Finals.

Finally, Kupchak has looked for only the highest caliber of coach. In 2004 he signed two-time championship coach Rudy Tomjanovich, and when he resigned in 2005 for personal reasons, Kupchak re-signed nine-time titlist Phil Jackson. Jackson may retire this summer, and if that happens, Kupchak would be wise to sign Byron Scott, former three-time champ as a player, two-time Finalist as a coach, and 2008 Coach of the Year.

Fisher and Farmar will be free agents come July and may not return; the Lakers may need to find a higher-caliber point guard. But with all the above-mentioned players, plus 2009 free agent acquisition Ron Artest, the Lakers seem poised to win at least one more title in the next three seasons, before the contracts and health of their top guys begin to expire. Kupchak has shown a golden touch since Shaquille O'Neal left. The challenge will be to find the next generation of Laker superstars when Bryant and Gasol eventually retire.

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