While the NBA’s postseason is in full swing, the Lakers are sitting at home for the third year in a row wondering if things can get any worse and where they go from here. Most fans are clamoring for ownership to cut ties with head coach Byron Scott, and virtually every player on the roster is under intense scrutiny after a season in which the team won a franchise-low 17 games.
The Lakers are indeed rife with problems, but is it possible that the biggest issue of all is flying under the radar?
Byron Scott inferred many times this season that the main problem with the Lakers was a lack of talent. If that is the case, who is to blame? Who was responsible for putting together a ragtag, mismatched group consisting of an oft-injured Kobe Bryant whose bloated contract took up most of the cap space, a contingent of young, untested players, a few career journeymen, and some players who never should have made the roster in the first place?
It is unclear what role Lakers’ co-owner Jim Buss played, if any, in assembling this distinguished group. Someone must take the blame, however, and since an owner is never going to fire himself, the ultimate responsibility must be attributable to the General Manager.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1976, Kupchak had a successful career as an NBA player including a stint with the Lakers in the mid-1980s. He retired as a player in 1986 and has been in the Lakers’ front office for the past 30 years. For a long time, he toiled in the very large shadow cast by Lakers’ legend Jerry West, who was General Manager and then Vice President of Basketball Operations. It was not until West left the Lakers in 2000 that Kupchak had any real power. Many years later, fans still mourn West’s departure, and many still gave him all the credit for assembling the Shaq-Kobe squad that won three consecutive titles.
Over the years, Kupchak had his own front office wins and losses. As General Manager, one of his first moves was to acquire the aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton, which sounded good at the time but did not work. He orchestrated trades for Trevor Ariza in 2007 and Pau Gasol in 2008 which were instrumental in leading to two more championships. But he let the younger Ariza leave prematurely and orchestrated the disastrous move to sign 38-year-old Steve Nash to a large three-year deal that cost the team a plethora of future draft choices.
Trading for Dwight Howard in 2012 seemed like a good move at the time, but there were always signs that the Lakers were not Howard’s first choice, and he bolted after one year with the team getting nothing in return. Kupchak’s lack of leadership worsened the impact of the vetoed Chris Paul trade, with Lamar Odom never recovering emotionally and the team’s relationship with future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol irreparable damaged.
Kupchak sat by while the teams’ relationship with Gasol deteriorated, who eventually left as a free agent to play for the Chicago Bulls with the Lakers receiving nothing in return. Gasol has since proven that he had plenty left in the tank.
The last four years have been nothing short of a disaster for the Lakers, and while it may be unfair to blame Kupchak for every misstep, as General Manager he is ultimately responsible. There have been poor coaching choices, poor personnel decisions, and the questionable contract given to Bryant though his physical condition rarely allowed him to play and when he did, most of the time it was embarrassing.
It is also unclear whether Kupchak was prudent in exercising the Lakers’ draft choices. In the last two drafts, the team had the number two and number seven selections, respectively. These were the highest draft picks the Lakers have held since James Worthy was chosen over 30 years ago. The team ended up using those picks on D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. Both players had only one year of college experience, and both were incredibly raw when they arrived in the NBA. Neither has been an instant success and while both show potential, at this moment it is unclear whether these are players who will ultimately become NBA stars.
The Lakers have also failed to make any proper adjustments during the season the past few years. For example, the team’s D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, is playing for a championship right now, but Kupchak did not promote a single player on that squad all year though the Lakers were losing regularly, not competing for a playoff spot, and players like Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, and Robert Sacre were not playing at a true NBA level.
Finally, and perhaps most important, there is the issue of free agency. This is where Kupchak is counted on most, and he has completely struck out the past three years. With so few attractive assets, signing a top free agent was always going to be a challenge. But there is a school of thought that a younger, more energetic and creative General Manager could make it happen. That is not Kupchak. It is hard to imagine any 25-year-old free agent in today’s NBA connecting with Kupchak on any level.
The team will be in the hunt for free agents again this summer, and if the reports are accurate, they are armed with the most cap space in the league. At one time that would have scared the rest of the NBA, but at this point, many cynically wonder if the Lakers will find any prominent veterans who are even willing to take their money. Many believe Kupchak is not the man who should be leading the effort to sign free agents at this crucial moment in the team’s history.
Putting aside all these factors, sometimes it is just time for a fresh start. With Bryant retiring after 20 years, it just feels like the right time for a change. The Lakers, from top to bottom, have become an embarrassment, and with Kobe not around to cover up the failures, next year has the potential to be even worse if firm, aggressive moves within the organization are not made.
Kupchak has enjoyed a long and fruitful career with the Lakers, but it may be time to erase the stink of the past few years and move towards a new era with fresh ideas and more charismatic leadership.