There are two kinds of Lakers fans out there: those who think that it was a good idea to extend the contract of general manager Mitch Kupchak and those who we should be embarrassed of. The fact that there is anyone out there even the least bit critical or angry with the decision is hilarious. In simplest terms, Kupchak is the last remaining link (not named Buss) to the franchise’s glory days. Jerry Buss and Bill Sharman have passed away, Jerry West is with the Warriors, Magic Johnson is with the Dodgers, Pat Riley is with the Heat, Phil Jackson is with the Knicks, and so on and so on.
The Lakers signed Kupchak as a player in 1981 and he’s been with them ever since. First as a player, then as assistant GM, then as GM, and then to his current position as VP of basketball operations. During that time, he’s accumulated nine championship rings and been a part of six other teams that made it to the NBA Finals. That’s 15 Finals appearances in 33 years. The fact that the Lakers haven’t had cap space every minute he’s been on the job since taking over for West, tells you what an amazing job he’s done.
Kupchak has made his share of mistakes, just as every other GM before or after him has. If there’s one major criticism of Kupchak that I have, it’s in some of the free agent contracts he gave out, both to the Lakers own free agents, as well as to those from other teams. But for every 6-year, $30 million contract given to Luke Walton or 3-year, $10.5 million contract he gave to Brian Cook, there’s a 4-year, $33 million contract he gave to Lamar Odom (with a team option for the fourth year) or a 2-year, $3.7 million contract for Matt Barnes. For every (2004 model) Vlade Divac or Chris Kaman he should have passed on, there’s a Trevor Ariza, Jordan Hill, and Shannon Brown he acquired via trade for Brian Cook, Mo Evans, Derek Fisher, and Vladimir Radmanovic.
While it’s fair to place the blame on Kupchak for giving out those contracts in the first place, he can’t be blamed for the franchise’s determination to disregard the draft as a pipeline for bringing in young talent. That’s because the decision to trim a luxury tax bill doesn’t come from Kupchak — it’s an edict from ownership. Because the Lakers seem to always be above the luxury tax limit, the value of each of their player contracts has to be analyzed not just through the lens of how much the player was getting paid, but by how much it was costing the team when the luxury tax penalties were factored in. Paying $5 million to Sasha Vujacic in the final year of his contract wasn’t that bad. It was Vujacic costing them $10 million with the luxury tax added in that was.
In order to convince teams to take those bad contracts, Kupchak had to entice them with first-round picks. That’s exactly how they were able to dump the contracts of Walton, Vujacic, and Fisher. It wasn’t Kupchak’s decision to trade away those picks. Just as it wasn’t his decision to sell their 2009 pick to the Knicks for nothing but a future second-round pick and cash. If that’s not enough to absolve Kupchak, we also need not pretend that Lakers fan should be crying about never having had any of the players selected with those picks.