Mitch Kupchak is the Houdini of sports management.
He is the best GM of this generation. There I said it.
In the rich lore of the Lakers, only the NBA icon, Jerry West, has done more for the franchise as a GM. In case you need a reminder, here is a quick snapshot of what Mitch has done to transform the Lakers roster over the past ten years.
2003 – Acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton
2004 – Traded Shaquille O’Neal for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler
2005 – Drafted Andrew Bynum
2007 – Acquired Trevor Ariza for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans
2008 – Acquired Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown
2009 – Signed Metta World Peace in free agency
2012 – Acquired Nash in a sign and trade
2012 – Acquired Dwight Howard in exchange for Andrew Bynum
Ring count – 2 (2009, 2010)
As Lakers fans we are spoiled. We are that kid who gets the dual park pass to Disneyland and California Adventure. Once inside the park we are treated to copious amounts of cotton candy, churros and ice cream sandwiches. Upon leaving we are handed a spinning light up toy, a bag of Disney apparel and a life size Mickey doll.
Every season Mitch Kupchak gives the Lakers fans another reason to believe. He obtains the players in order to contend for a title year after year. You may have heard the saying that “only banners matter in Tinseltown,” and that assertion is completely true. Not many GMs are under that kind of spotlight and lofty expectations each year. Not only does Mitch deliver, he somehow manages to exceed the impossibly high standards. Only a magician could pull off such a feat.
The immense pressure started from the beginning. In 2000, Kupchak stepped into the shoes of Jerry West. A legend in the NBA, West had orchestrated one of the most entertaining teams in history, the Showtime Lakers. He also added five championships to the Lakers’ trophy case. The Lakers organization and fanbase had come to expect a championship nearly every year which is highly unrealistic. It’s fair to say that Mitch was scrutinized from the get go. However Mitch didn’t shy away from the pressure, he picked up the phone and got to work.
In the years leading up to the Pau Gasol trade, Mitch faced severe criticism, especially from Kobe Bryant. After Shaq was traded to Miami, Kobe wanted to be put in a position to compete for a championship. Undoubtedly, the Lakers were Kobe’s team and he wanted to prove that he could win a ring without Shaq. After Mitch decided not to pull the trigger to trade Bynum for Kidd, Kobe was furious and officially became Kupchak’s leading detractor.
One year later, Mitch stunned the basketball world by pulling off a franchise changing trade for Pau Gasol. Not only did he manage to acquire one of the top three power forwards in the league, he also was able to unload an underperforming player by trading away Kwame Brown. After the trade Bryant admitted that, “He [Mitch Kupchak] goes from an F to an A-plus.” The trade paid off immediately, as the Lakers would go on to win two consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010.
In the 2010-2011 post-season the Lakers suffered one of the most humiliating exits in franchise history. The Lakers were swept 4-0 by the Mavericks who would go on to win the title. In game four, a frustrated Bynum decked J.J. Barea and was subsequently ejected. It was a classless move which marred the recent success of the Lakers. It seemed as if the franchise was spiraling out of control and Mitch Kupchak acknowledged that off season moves were going to be made. That summer, Lamar Odom was was traded to the Mavericks in exchange for a trade exception. At the time all of us scratched our heads and wondered if Kupchak had made an error. It seemed as if he had dumped the reigning sixth man of the year and received nothing in exchange. No other major personnel moves were made during that off season and the Lakers fan base was getting antsy.
Lakers fans were quick to forget the 2008 Gasol trade. What are the chances of catching lightning in a bottle once, twice, thrice? Lakers management led by Mitch Kupchak did just that one summer later when they signed both Nash and Howard. The Odom trade seemed like a disaster, but Mitch was able to turn a lump of coal into a gleaming diamond in signing Nash with the trade exception. On the heels of the Nash signing, the blockbuster of 2012 summer struck when the Lakers completed a four team deal in which they would ultimately trade Bynum for Howard. Mitch’s patience with Bynum paid off; the deal happened because the Lakers took the time to develop Bynum into one of the league’s top flight centers. But, what makes this transaction truly miraculous is that Mitch was able to trade up without having to give up any other key players. Mitch certainly has a knack for the magical and his full bag of tricks was on display during this historic off season.
The Magician at Work
As we have seen, Mitch has pulled off his fair share of magic throughout his tenure. In particular, the Pau Gasol trade defies understanding. Somehow he was able to unload an underachieving, overall number one draft bust in exchange for the most skilled power forward in the league. Then during this off season he materialized the best point guard of this decade, Steve Nash, out of thin air. And in trading up for Dwight Howard he did the equivalent of trading a Honda Accord for a same year Acura TL. What kind of sorcery is this?
Each of these deals makes one scratch his head in amazement, much like one would after watching David Copperfield perform in Vegas. And like a true magician, he manages to up the ante through the years and keep the audience on their feet applauding like crazed lunatics. In evaluating these deals, a reoccurring theme surfaces: the Lakers managed to get the better end of each deal by a wide margin. Some will rightfully point out that these deals are unfair. But in each of these deals the opposing GM grabbed Mitch’s outstretched hand and shook it. Afterwards fans, media, and players alike are left dazed and confused. Was it magic? How did he do it?
We’ll never know because a magician never reveals his secrets.