Michael Jordan has just hired the former GM who was known around Lakers town as “Mitch”. Mitch began his playing career with the Lakers when Magic Johnson convinced Jerry Buss to sign him as a free agent to help the Lakers get back to the Finals in 1981. Three years earlier, Mitch won a title with the Washington Bullets. He was a big man who could rebound, score a little bit, exhibit toughness in the paint. With the Lakers, he lasted a month before he tore his knee. Back then it was catastrophic. Today it would have been a year rehab and back to basketball things. Mitch was out two years and was never the same, a shell of himself. He went back to school, became Jerry West’s protegee and then took over for West.
We know why Jordan hired a GM who left his job in disgrace, fired by his former teammate and replaced by a younger, less experienced man. MJ loves North Carolina guys; it’s his weakness. Kupchak was a TarHeel for four years in the early seventies. But that doesn’t make him, a 63 year old man, competent enough to be a GM in the modern era of NBA that de-emphasizes the big man and eroticizes shooters. Kupchak was fired because of a bunch of bad decisions he made for the Lakers that overhsadowed his good moves. He could never escape his repetitive failures.
Mitch Kupchak drafted one All-Star since Jerry West resigned: Andrew Bynum. He pulled off one season changing trade when he shipped out Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittendon to Memphis for Pau Gasol and draft pick Marc Gasol who had been stashed in Europe. It gave him three Finals appearances in three years before the ship hit an iceberg and everything fell apart.
Kupchak’s greatest moment in fighting off stress was when he didn’t trade Kobe Bryant when Bryant wanted out. Kupchak had a deal with Detroit but because Bryant had a trade kicker, the bulk of the Pistons team and cash would have had to come to L.A. and Kobe would have been in Detroit solo, which is what he was trying to escape. Bryant was under contract. Kupchak didn’t blink and a few months later he picked up Gasol and Bryant was happy again. But he did panic in 2011 and traded Lamar Odom when he didn’t have to.
Some of his failures:
- He fired Mike Brown 5 games into the 2012 season after giving him a vote of confidence.
- He humiliated Phil Jackson by hiring Mike D’Antoni over him.
- His hiring of D’Antoni was a disaster. And stupid. The Lakers didn’t have any perimeter shooters for D’Antoni to mentor into his system. D’Antoni hated Pau Gasol and benched him. D’Antoni despised Dwight Howard. D’Antoni would be ruthlessly blamed for Kobe’s Achilles tear because he did not restrain Bryant from playing two straight games for 48 minutes.
- He failed in trading for Chris Paul. That moment began Kupchak’s downhill slide. He never recovered.
- Kupchak traded Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard. He won the trade because Bynum never really played again. But the Kobe-Dwight marriage was rocky and volatile. Kupchak tried to make Howard happy and in the free agent recruitment put up stupid Stay Dwight billboards that made Mitch and Jim [Buss] look like fools who had just been ghosted.
- He overpaid Kobe Bryant when he was recovering from an Achilles.
- He drafted D’Angelo Russell instead of Kristaps Porzingis.
Some of his good moves:
- He drafted Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson in the same draft.
- He was good at the bottom of the draft. Larry Nance Jr 27th. Ivica Zubac 32nd.
- He hired Byron Scott. He fired him.
- He overpaid Luol Deng who can’t be traded because of his bloated salary.
- He overpaid Timofey Mozgov who was traded only because D’Angelo Russell was attached in the deal.
He didn’t know when he drafted Javaris Crittendon in 2007 he’d commit murder. Crittendon had been traded by then but it was a wasted draft pick.
Every GM has misses. Kupchak’s failures were on the big stage because he was the GM of the Lakers.
Under Kupchak’s watch, the Lakers were one of the last teams to embrace analytics. It was also Kupchak’s feet in the sand that kept the Lakers with superstars in their eyes instead of pivoting towards developing players. Kupchak was slow to recognize the game changing to perimeter scoring. He was accused of being too cautious and too deliberate and too measured. He missed Dr. Buss’ instincts.
The free agent move that changed Kupchak’s reputation was the trade for Steve Nash who was an old broken back player in 2012. Kupchak gave up draft picks the Lakers are still paying for. They won’t have a lottery pick in the 2018 draft because of the Nash trade. Nash barely played and had to retire.
Kupchak wasn’t very good as his team aged. He made all the wrong choices and he lacked leadership. Then he got desperate and offered contracts to players who could not live up to them. When he was fired, it was a long time coming. His reputation had taken a beating. You cannot continuously fail in Los Angeles and not have to suffer.
As for the man he replaces in Charlotte, Rich Cho had some weak moments himself. He drafted the wrong players, he overpaid the right players. But Kupchak as his replacement doesn’t seem to fit. It’s not that Kupchak is in 60’s and it’s a young man’s job. But it’s that Kupchak’s philosophy has passed the NBA by. It’s old old school.
Charlotte has the point guard but not much else. They lack scoring everywhere. MJ wants someone who can draft in the lottery which is where the Hornets will be. It’s been 13 years since Kupchak has picked an All-Star lottery pick and that was with Phil Jackson’s help.
The Hornets don’t have any flexibility. They will be over the cap. Dwight Howard is making $23 million, more than twice of Kemba Walker. Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller all make more than Kemba. Trading anyone seems like a pipedream.
Cho didn’t do a good job drafting the past five years.
- Cody Zeller, 7.0 points. 3.9 rebounds.
- Noah Vonleh, traded twice. 3.9 points. 4.0 rebounds.
- Frank Kaminsky, 9.7 points. 3.6 rebunds.
- Malachi Richardson, traded twice. 3.5 points. 1.2 rebounds.
- Malik Monk, 5.0 points. 1.2 assists.
Cho is smart, engineering and law background, and he is a numbers geek. But what he learned the hard way was that numbers can’t make someone into what they are not. He could not draft a star to compliment Kemba. His misses post-Kemba are legendary.
- Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, C.J. McCollum, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rodney Hood, Devin Booker, Donvan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart
A GM’s job is to scout and develop talent and create flexibility. Cho failed at all three. So has Kupchak. Charlotte does need a new GM, just not a retread like Kupchak who failed tremondously in the largest market and should be prevented from failing in a small market. But MJ just gave him the keys.