Three years ago, when Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak made it clear the team would do whatever necessary to keep Kobe Bryant, I thought he was crazy for not taking the same approach with Shaquille O’Neal.
By publicly dissing the Big Aristotle, Kupchak revealed two things: The Lakers would be going through a rebuilding phase; and, in either Kupchak’s opinion or that of owner Jerry Buss, Shaq’s days as the NBA’s most dominant player were numbered. Shaq then went to Miami and won a championship while announcing along the way that Dwyane Wade was a better player and teammate than Kobe. This naturally made Kupchak look like he needed to be committed to the nearest institution.
Now, however, we realize that Kupchak was right on both accounts. Shaq is sidelined with a hip injury and the Heat have tumbled into last place in the Eastern Conference. As for the Lakers’ rebuilding phase? It seems to be shorter and less painful than expected.
The Lakers are one of the few teams who have been able to rebuild while also staying competitive. Ask the Minnesota Timberwolves about the alternative.
Here’s what Kupchak and the Lakers’ front office has done:
• In recent years they drafted Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf, all of who have become productive members of the team’s rotation. Kobe ridiculed Bynum over the summer, but he hasn’t had many negative things to say about him of late. Not when Bynum is developing into one of the league’s best centers.
• Kupchak has surrounded Kobe with deadeye shooters (Derek Fisher, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic) who can give him room to operate. Bringing back Fisher seemed like a mercy call, but he looks like a steal.
• The Lakers recently convinced coach Phil Jackson to sign a two-year extension.
• Perhaps most important, Kupchak stayed quiet when Kobe and Buss bickered in training camp. That controversy, at least for now, has finally died down.
Kupchak has said the only way he makes a trade is to catapult his team to elite status. If that’s true the Lakers might be only one piece away, if that. They currently own the fourth-best record in the Western Conference and have just one more loss than the first-place Phoenix Suns.
This could be the season the Lakers go from playoff team to contender. Why? Trust.
Prior to this season, Kobe had no reason to trust his teammates. They didn't produce when given the opportunity. That's not the case this season. Nearly all of them have delivered.
Lamar Odom seems to have finally figured out how to play in the triangle offense, or at least figured out how to play with Kobe. Radmanovic, Luke Walton, Trevor Ariza – even the rook, Javaris Crittenton – have made contributions at times.
So I say get your banners out. It’s election season. Kupchak for Executive of the Year.