When people talk about individuals who were “Lakers for life”, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and even James Worthy are names that come up. When people talk about the most influential names in Lakers history, Dr. Jerry Buss, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant all come to mind. While all those names are deserving, one that often gets overlooked is Mitch Kupchak, who was recently relieved of his duties as the Lakers’ general manager. Kupchak made some mistakes, and many will remember him for the lottery years and free agent misses. I will remember him for the trades and clever signings that he made, but this is a review of his time with the Lakers as a whole.
Mitch Kupchak arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 when he signed on as a player. Ironically enough, Magic Johnson insisted to go after him, saying “If we could get Mitch Kupchak, I know we could win.” Mitch had already obtained a ring with the Washington Bullets in his sophomore year, and he wasn’t just a bench warmer either. He averaged 16 PPG and 7 RPG. The signing worked well at first. Through his first 26 games, Kupchak averaged nearly 15 and 7 for the Lakers before an injury caused him to miss the rest of the year and the following season. He returned and became a key rotation player bringing energy off the bench for LA when they won again in 1985.
Mitch retired after the 1985 season and was immediately hired as the Lakers’ Assistant General Manager. He soon took over for Jerry West as the GM, but did not have actual general manager powers until 2000. Still, he worked well under West, and was even said to have a key role in the summer of ’96.
Once he took over in 2000, he oversaw some key moves. He was able to keep a capped out Laker team deep enough to make sure the team was able to repeat and three-peat after West built the 2000 championship team. After a second round exit in 2003, the Lakers acquired an aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton in what was one of the NBA’s first super-teams built through free agency. Despite their age, Payton and Malone were all-stars the season before the Lakers signed them, and they were still effective in their lone season with the team. Payton averaged nearly 15-5-6 and Malone was close to 13-9-4. Had this team been healthy and avoided the distraction of Kobe Bryant’s rape case, it is reasonable to think that the Lakers would have another championship. Kupchak also drafted Luke Walton in the second round that year, an underrated move.
The following season didn’t work out and the Kobe-Shaq dynamic reached a boiling point. One of them had to go, and the answer was clearly Shaq. Kobe was young, had fewer injury concerns, and honestly, he had probably surpassed Shaq already. Kobe still flirted with signing with the Clippers, but ended up returning to the Lakers. They traded Shaq for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Cook, and a future first rounder. They also drafted Sasha Vujacic, and the rebuild was on. The Lakers drafted Andrew Bynum a year later and brought back Phil Jackson to coach the team.
Just four years later, the rebuild was over. It didn’t come easy. Kobe demanded a trade and Mitch took a lot of heat, but Caron Butler turned into to Kwame Brown, who turned into Pau Gasol. The Lakers brought back Derek Fisher. Andrew Bynum developed into a very good starting center when healthy. Lamar Odom became one of the best sixth men in the league. Brian Cook turned into Trevor Ariza. Vladimir Radmanović became Shannon Brown (and Adam Morrison). The first rounder from the Shaq trade became Jordan Farmar. Kobe was the best player in the league and while (depending on how you feel about Pau Gasol) the Lakers had no other superstar, they had the best and deepest supporting cast in the NBA, and it was all built by Mitch Kupchak. The team was good enough to repeat as well, with the artist formerly known as Ron Artest taking the place of Trevor Ariza.
Unfortunately, age and mileage caught up to the team, and Dirk Nowitzki was on a mission. The Lakers were swept by the Mavericks in the 2011 playoffs, but Kupchak had a trick up his sleeve. The Lakers traded Odom and Gasol for Chris Paul, a 26 year old superstar. Odom and Gasol was a lot to give up, but the Lakers saved about $20 million in cap space and gave up no draft picks. To top it all off, it was widely reported that those draft picks, along with Andrew Bynum, would turn into Dwight Howard. With two young superstars, the Lakers would have been set for the next five to seven years, and Kobe was still a top three player. They would have have been title favorites for years to come. Would have. But the trade was vetoed. For Mitch Kupchak, this was the beginning of the end.
The Lakers trudged toward the 2011-2012 season with Pau Gasol and Kobe. Odom, hurt by the vetoed trade, was shipped off to Dallas for a trade exception. Mike Brown was brought on to replace the retiring Phil Jackson. Kupchak still had one final trick up his sleeve. In the summer of 2012, the Lakers traded four draft picks for Steve Nash, and then traded Bynum for Dwight Howard. At the time, Laker fans couldn’t have been happier. Nash had averaged 12.5 PPG and 10.7 APG the year before on a 53-39-89 shooting line. He led a bad Suns team to an average record of 41-41. Dwight had just hurt his back, but had been in his prime before that. Because of the back injury, his 2011-2012 season was cut short, but he had been named Defensive Player of the Year in each of the three years prior to that. He was the perfect pick and roll partner for Nash, and the Lakers were the best team in the NBA, at least on paper. Then they lost all their preseason games, and Nash got hurt in the second game of the season. Mike Brown was fired after a 1-4 start and Phil Jackson was shunned in favor of Mike D’Antoni. Despite what people think, Dr. Buss made that choice, not Mitch (and not Jim Buss). In any case, the team was destined to fail. Injuries, chemistry issues, and players not fitting into the offense all hurt the team. Kobe carried them to the playoffs at the cost of his achilles and Dwight bolted for Houston in the summer. Nash hardly played and Pau left a year later.
The Lakers drafted Julius Randle in 2014 and hired Byron Scott after D’Antoni resigned. They also drafted Jordan Clarkson with a second rounder they bought from Washington, and traded for Jeremy Lin and a 2015 first rounder that became Larry Nance Jr. The team tanked and drafted D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in 2015. They landed the second pick for a second straight year and fired Byron Scott, finally getting their coach of the future in Luke Walton. The same week that Walton was introduced, the Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram. So, while he may be remembered for missed free agents, Mitch Kupchak operated one of the best stealth tank operations ever and built a very good nucleus. Ryan West played a big part in Jordan Clarkson, ditto with Jesse Buss and Larry Nance, but a good GM listens to his staff. Mitch did, and it paid off. Mitch, with some help, has left the Lakers with a great young core.
There are some smart and clever moves that I’m sure I’m forgetting, but for the most part we are nearly caught up to the present. There is only one more major move that I want to talk about, or lack thereof. On February 19th, the Kings shipped Demarcus Cousins to the Pelicans. The Kings were reportedly considering two offers, one from the Lakers and one from New Orleans. The reason they chose the Pelicans is because Mitch refused to include Brandon Ingram in the trade, as he believes highly in Ingram. It was later reported that trading for Cousins was Mitch’s last chance to save his job. That means that Mitch chose what he believed to be best for the franchise over his own job safety. He truly took one for the team. That makes him a legend, and that is what he should be remembered for.