Prior to the deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, you couldn't blame Mitch Kupchak for failing to land the MVP-caliber center. Apparently the Lakers GM had been attempting for months, back to the midpoint of the 2011-12 season, to turn any number of Andrew Bynum-led packages into a deal for the former Orlando Magic big man, but had been rebuffed by two different GMs (and, in a way, Howard himself). And after grabbing Steve Nash for a song and retaining the team's three All-Star level starters, nobody could criticize Kupchak for going on the family vacation he had committed to during the second week of August.
To him, the Howard deal was "over," as the Magic mulled their options. Apparently the relaxed trade restrictions on rookie forward Moe Harkless sent new Orlando GM Rob Hennigan over the moon, and the Lakers were able to make a massive upgrade from the league's second to best center in time enough for Kupchak to make that family holiday. From a nice interview with Orange County Register's Kevin Ding:
The Lakers were always confident Howard would re-sign with them given who and where they are, besides how much more they can offer than any other club. Other teams interested in Howard were understandably worried that Howard might leave via free agency a year from now — and therefore cautious in what they offered.
Whether he's just a customer who is satisfied (Kupchak's chosen description, actually, was "ecstatic"), Kupchak praised Hennigan upon emerging so nice and dry from that waterfall of frustrating trade talks.
"Looking back on it, he did exactly what he was supposed to do," Kupchak said. "He took his time. He looked at every opportunity, narrowed it down, negotiated, went back to a different team, negotiated some more, kept on coming back to you."
Of course, this is a man who is thanking the GM that just sent him Dwight Howard. Even without that, GMs will never criticize each other on record, so just take Mitch's words with a grain of salt. Especially when this column appears as if Hennigan was tapping his foot and counting the days until a deal for Harkless (a rookie who has yet to play an NBA game) was made league-legal.
Kupchak was right to believe that Howard was going to re-sign with the team following the creation of his status as a 2013 unrestricted free agent, but the Houston Rockets should have been nearly as confident had Orlando accepted their deal for Howard. So should have been the Philadelphia 76ers (who ended up with Bynum) even before Andrew's presser with the team last week. The sheer amount of money that incumbent teams can throw at their free agents establishes that confidence well in advance.
It's noble for Kupchak to publicly praise Hennigan, a GM nearly half his age, for various reasons. Chief among them, obviously, is the unwritten code of on-record conduct between GMs. Second is the part that tells you that Magic CEO Alex Martins (a person with no basketball history entering his ascension to that position in 2011-12) may have had more to do with this deal than is being let on.
There's also the part where Kupchak says things that are far from incorrect. Hennigan did take his time. He did narrow things down, negotiate, and deal with several teams.
We — and we're not alone in the NBA community in this criticism — just think that Orlando could have taken more time (we're still five weeks removed from Howard having to show up to camp), narrow things down further (Houston, perhaps, and more cap space for 2013 instead of 2014 along with better draft picks?), and deal with different teams. The Rox, again, or actually grabbing Bynum from Los Angeles and putting the onus on Andrew to turn down tens of millions of dollars to leave that team as a free agent in the summer of 2013.
Though we're great fans of Pau Gasol, it's easy to understand why a rebuilding team in Orlando didn't want a player over 30 making nearly $20 million a year to start over with. We like Harkless, and aren't as down on Nikola Vucevic as others. Orlando's eventual Howard deal didn't change much, though, and it didn't affect much in terms of the team's eventual flexibility.
That's for another, possibly spurred on by the words of former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, column. For now the focus is on Kupchak — a GM who has had incredible fortune and good luck, but has also put himself in the position to have such great luck (by agreeing with Jim Buss to draft Bynum, and by smartly trading Caron Butler in his prime for Kwame Brown because he knew the Memphis Grizzlies would want Kwame for Pau Gasol so badly).
Bad jokes aside, Kupchak has delivered a roster that, while flawed in parts, should be rightfully regarded as the championship favorite even after Miami's impressive run to the title last June. We're aware that the shot selection was dodgy, the defense lacking, and the bench was awful last season; but that's why you trade for Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and sign Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. Kupchak, in ways that can't be dismissed because his owners are willing to pay more, has done a brilliant job.
We're guessing he enjoyed that vacation.