Mitch Kupchak At The End of the World

Jerry West announced his retirement from the Lakers in the summer of 2000. Directly responsible for the first post-Showtime title, the timing was perfect. Look at what he had done. He brought Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles in a trade. He signed Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent. He traded for Robert Horry after Horry waged mutiny against Suns coach Danny Ainge. He signed Brian Shaw as a free agent. He signed Rick Fox as a free agent. He traded Eddie Jones for Glen Rice. That 2000 championship team had West’s fingerprints all over it.

It was August and Jerry West was saying goodbye.

It was a bittersweet moment. Jerry West deftly painted inside the lines with generational talent and supporting role players. He was responsible for 7 of the Lakers championships but he had irregular heartbeat issues and a tense relationship with Phil Jackson that was trending downward.

“This is a difficult yet happy time for me personally as I retire my position and enter another period of my life.” (Jerry West)

Succeeding West and filling his enormous shoes was his protege Mitch Kupchak, a West assistant for 14 years. Lakers owner, Jerry Buss, was sold on Kupchak taking the reins.

“He is Jerry West’s handpicked successor and was trained by the best. Mitch has become and will continue to be one of the best front office executives in the NBA in his own right.”

Best front office executive would be debated over Mitch Kupchak’s tenure. This much is true, regardless of where you stand on Mitch Kupchak being fired or Mitch Kupchak staying. He always existed in Jerry West’s silhouette, forever compared and analyzed to one of the NBA’s greatest talent evaluators and front office executives.

Better to remain silent and thought a fool then to speak out and remove all doubt (Abraham Lincoln)

Jim Buss is a cautionary tale. He inherited the most popular professional basketball team in the world and managed to submerge that team into previously unknown depths of despair. But that is not what makes Buss the cautionary tale. What makes him a figure of scorn, and glee (to some) is what Jim Buss said in a family meeting. He stood up like Napoleon holding court after the battle at Austerlitz and swore the Lakers would be in the playoffs in three years. He guaranteed it. He said if the Lakers weren’t contending for a championship in three years (2017), he would quit.

It is 2017. But he didn’t have to quit. He was stripped of his job as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, by his sister. The Jerry West protegee, Mitch Kupchak, was fired.

Before he was fired Mitch Kupchak admitted some of the draft picks the Lakers are banking on- D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Ingram- may not be as good as they thought. He also said a couple of them could be All-Stars sometime in their career. He admitted that Nance Jr. and Clarkson are farther ahead because they had three plus years of college.

Nothing Kupchak admitted was new. One year players take awhile to develop unless they are special and no one in this group is special. Shouldn’t Jim Buss have known that before he stood up and made his declaration, an arrogant boast that led to his demotion?

Jeanie Buss, the boss of all things Lakers, no longer distracted by ex-fiancee  Phil, acted on the authority her father gave her by cleaning house.  She also fired John Black who had been the Lakers PR man for over 30 years.

“Jim was very sure of himself when he promised that timeline, and I think that he has everything he needs to fulfill the promise of getting the team back competitive. And when I say competitive, it’s competing for the Western Conference Finals, which would mean at least second round of the playoffs…and if they can’t do that then we have to reexamine how things are going.” (Jeanie Buss, 2016)

Jeanie was not particularly pleased last year  with Mitch Kupchak blaming the sorry season on Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour. That was her father talking. Her father never blamed his star players; Jeanie is taking the trust her father gave her in making her the team governor and the one with all the power.

Jeanie is not a basketball person but what she looks at it is the texture. The losing by 40 points. The empty seats. They lack of effort. It was always going to be a tough calculus once Kobe was gone. Kobe took it all on, the blame, the suffering, the ecstasy, the brilliance. It was his to mold around his enormous persona, competitiveness and game. He was both the conductor and the orchestra. Remove him and there is a hole that nothing can fill, not inexperienced and often immature players anointed as the next best thing.

Even as Kobe took the oxygen out the room last season he didn’t depress the talent on the floor.  Buss and Kupchak built a team that has no interior presence or paint scoring, no attacking the rim religiously or skilled shooting and a lot of young, inexperienced players with potential that needs development as they make the same mistakes game after game.

There is no other way to define this latest Lakers twist in their storied history than to say it is a self-inflicted wound Jim Buss created that caused Jeanie to react, or to some, overreact.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn (Alvin Toffler)

After the 2000 season, Mitch Kupchak became the Lakers General Manager. In 17 years, he has had some great triumphs, 4 titles, though two of them are directly attributed to West’s players. The titles of 2009 and 2010 were Kupchak success stories. He rebuilt a team that was 34-48 in 2005. Four years later, they owned the NBA.

But what happened in the summer of five years ago was a deliberate plan to close the door on Lakers values and Mitch Kupchak, for the first time in his career, was the responsible party. He built the disaster. Forget Jim Buss the rich man’s kid who isn’t taken seriously. Mitch Kupchak was the adult in the room. His reputation was suddenly under attack.

Critiqued and second guessed, later rebuked, Kupchak was asked to justify himself, to submerge into his own psyche. What exactly was he thinking paying Steve Nash, a perennial back sufferer who was 38 years old, that kind of money? What was he thinking green lighting the Dwight Howard Stay billboards? And Kobe’s contract? Wasn’t there an economist in the room?

The Lakers have never cornered the market on perfect, despite what the history books say. Omitted is what is ugly. Earl Jones. Ken Barlow. David Rivers. Sam Jacobsen. They were Lakers busts. It happens.

But, no one who works for the Lakers can say or will ever say, we were wrong. We were wrong about Steve Nash. We were wrong about Dwight Howard. We were wrong about Wesley Johnson. We were wrong about Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. We were wrong about Byron Scott.

On more than one occasion Jeanie Buss has apologized to Laker fans. (She did so last night). But an apology is humility rather than guilt. It is forgiveness, not accountability, nor is it contrition. It is a mea culpa that comes way too late in rebuilding trust. Even with Magic Johnson as the head of the snake, the Lakers front office culture is one of entitlement.

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In 1981, Mitch Kupchak signed with the Lakers as a free agent. He won a title for Washington in his second year in the league, 1978. He averaged 16 points and 7 boards. In 1981, after a non-championship year, Magic Johnson looked around the league. He thought Kupchak would be a perfect fit for the Lakers front court and he pitched the idea to Jerry Buss until Buss signed Kupchak to a free agent deal.

It was good for 26 games as Kupchak had career highs in rebounds. He shot 57%, a career high. He played 31 minutes, a career high. Against the Blazers, 25 points. Against the Sonics, 20 points. Against the Spurs, 25 points. And then came the Clippers.

The Clippers ended the Kupchak firewall in disastrous fashion. The Clippers were still in San Diego, mostly invisible and ignored, a team no one paid attention to or cared enough to even argue about. It was a week before Christmas but it was a night of hell for Kupchak. He shattered his knee. It was a spectacularly gruesome injury in those days and not much was left of the Kupchak career other than the reductive sorrow of being a one-legged player. Double digit scoring, gone. 50% shooting, gone. 20+ minutes a game, that was over too. It was a two year recovery, a grueling low road of pain and more pain with no pot of gold at the end, unless you think 5 points and 3 rebounds is anything close to excellent.

Kupchak did win a title in his last year, he played in Boston Garden in 1985, in game 6. He had 6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal, the greatest moment of his career. He came back. It wasn’t pretty but he came back. And then he retired.

Winning is not a some time thing, it is an all time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time (Vince Lombardi)

Here Kupchak stands. He is as Saint Mark once said, “clothed and in his right mind.” He is no longer the overseer of team that hasn’t won 25 games and it is almost the end of February. The Lakers are a broken piece of NBA desperation and so Kupchak leaves not as a hero. He walks backwards into the rest of his life; he couldn’t make it work without a dominant player. His vision failed him.

For this bunch, rarely do things go right, not on the court, not off of it with Magic Johnson taking very little time to burn Rome.

There are many that applaud Kupchak being gone. They think the Lakers operational theory is antiquated and doesn’t embrace the space the floor, ball movement, fast guards in the paint era that has swept the league and changed its image. They despise the Lakers holy courtship of money and profit and selling high priced seats to the beautifully powerful and the beautifully rich and the beautifully glamorous. This theological mandate requires you to go after players that can entertain. The Lakers, critics argue on a daily basis, are still stuck in the old way.

When you consider that the Nets new general manager is 40 years old, you begin to wonder, what if? What if a younger, more energetic, idea driven general manager ran the Lakers? He may not get the Lakers into the playoffs in 2017-18, but he would have the ability to define and instill a culture, something that is sorely missing in the first of these post-Kobe Bryant days.

Rumors are Kobe’s agent, Rob Pelinka is first in line for the GM spot. If that is true, as reported by Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, then it is clear what the plan is. Go the free agent route. The Lakers tried hard to get DeMarcus Cousins but failed when they wouldn’t give up Brandon Ingram. They made an offer for Jimmy Butler that was similarly rejected. So the Lakers are doing Lakers things with the same results.

But what about Kupchak? How exactly do we judge him? What to say about these 17 years? He has had some successes.  He’s had some failures. He wasn’t Jerry West. But he managed to ink his name in the record book with two titles. He traded Shaq. He also introduced us to Smush Parker. The Kupchak era has had some really significant head in the sand moments and some grace under pressure consequences. Kobe wasn’t traded. Pau Gasol altered the Lakers history. You take the good with the not so good.

Sports has a cruel edge.  Kupchak didn’t lose his job because Jim Buss stood up in a meeting and said something stupid; he lost his job because the Lakers don’t have a star to deflect the sorrow. He lost his job because his young players are plodding along and it is hard to see great attached to any of them. He lost his job because this is the fourth year in a row without a playoff appearance. The castle is burning. Embers are everywhere.




photo via llananba