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Mitch Kupchak was ready. He was going to be a Laker for life. Not the king of Los Angeles or even a member of the marquee group, but it was enough. The season was 1981-82, and the 26-year-old Kupchak (newly outfitted with a seven-year, $6.3 million free-agent deal given to him by Los Angeles basketball chief Jerry West) was set to be the team’s power forward of the 1980s – doing all the Santa Ana dirty work alongside the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and third-year stud Magic Johnson.
Kupchak couldn’t even make it out of 1981-82 without everything falling apart. The big forward, whom West gave up two draft picks and the rights to center Jim Chones and veteran Brad Holland for in compensation exchange (back when that was a thing), tore up his left knee after 26 games and was lost for the next two seasons. The Lakers would go on to win a title without an active Kupchak in 1982 and 1985, prior to Mitch’s retirement as a player in 1986.
The North Carolina forward, whom Magic Johnson lobbied to sign at great Lakers expense after a fitful and unsuccessful title defense in 1981, averaged 14 points and eight rebounds in only 31 minutes a game prior to his injury, and Kupchak was never the same after the setback. Moving on to gain an MBA from UCLA, Mitch was hired by West to work in the team’s front office upon his retirement as an active player.
That run stretched on for over three decades, until Kupchak was let go on Tuesday in Magic Johnson’s stunning, yet not entirely unexpected, coup. Nearly 36 years after Johnson initially pushed to hire Kupchak, and after almost 17 years of running the show as the Lakers’ de facto general manager in West’s post-Y2K absence, Kupchak was finally set free. He released a statement on Wednesday:
“I would like to thank the Buss family for 36 incredible years,” the statement read. “In particular I would like to acknowledge Dr. Buss who brought me here as a player in 1981. I also want to thank every Laker player, coach and staff member with whom I have worked and who supported me through the good times and the very few not so good times. I am most disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to continue to work with Luke [Walton, coach and former Kupchak draft pick] and watch this young and talented team grow and eventually win in the Laker tradition.
“Finally, my best wishes to Earvin Johnson and the Laker organization going forward.”
The move, as announced to great shock on Tuesday, was met with more clamor for the dismissal of former Lakers basketball ops president Jim Buss than it was the canning of the team’s longtime general manager, as Jim Buss (son of late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, sister of remaining business operations chief Jeannie Buss) was seen as an unqualified familial plant that was going to need a bit of uncomfortable finagling to remove.
That, it turns out, was not the case. Jim Buss was let go in short order following Tuesday’s performance review with Johnson, hired earlier in 2017 in an adviser’s role, finally ensuring him confidence in the claim that, yes, “you can fire yourself if you own the team.”
That intrigue overshadowed the removal of Kupchak, who it appears has no role with the Lakers moving forward. Jim Buss, still a part-owner along with his four other siblings, will remain with the club.
The abrupt (if long-anticipated) shift seemed almost appropriate for Kupchak, who became a Laker player during a championship year and a Lakers general manager during another championship year in 1999-00, a presence typically omitted but for the times the whole of Laker Nation needed someone to rail against, even during the best of the championship runs.
That’s a shame, but we should remind ourselves that Kupchak had done more than enough, in two different realms, to warrant removal from his position. His work during his first few years in Los Angeles, even the championship years of 2001 and 2002, was spotty at best, as was his impact during the seven long years the team has spent between the team’s final 2010 championship, and whatever the hell happened on Tuesday.
He’s also done some work in the margins of those embarrassing turns that, for many general managers, would ensure his place in the position for decades to come.
All he had to do was continue putting up with this Lakers nonsense, this unending nonsense, almost from the beginning. From that injury-wrecked first run as a player, one that could have seen him act as a championship-level Luis Scola-type with a stronger propensity to bang, to that first year working alongside the unashamed mess of nerves that is Jerry West.
“About the second week I was there, I’m standing in the bathroom at the Forum . . . when the door flies open and Jerry walks in, face red, smoke shooting out of his ears, every other word a four-letter word,” Kupchak recalled recently. “He’s ranting and raving, talking to me, but not really talking to me even though there’s nobody else in there. I’m petrified.
“‘You know, I’ve had enough. I’m telling Dr. [Jerry] Buss I’m quitting and I’m recommending you for the job.’ And then he walked out,” Kupchak recalled West saying. “I’m still . . . staring straight ahead at the wall, saying to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this job.’ “
West, so unnerved by the job and by the encroaching presence of new coach Phil Jackson, left the Lakers soon after the team’s 1999-00 championship run. In leaving the team to Kupchak, West appeared to have handed the team’s new general manager the setting for a dynasty, with many forgetting that Kupchak had played a strong role in the team’s machinations (moves that were revealed in later years to be ahead of their time) that led to the franchise landing both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant over the course of a single summer.
The fear (and, to some, hope) in Los Angeles in 2000 was that Jackson, after years of clashing with Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, would take a stronger role in roster creation with his second head coaching job. Instead, Jackson left Kupchak up to his own devices, and faced with adding around the fringes to a top-heavy, capped-out roster, Mitch Kupchak mostly fell short.
There were famous and infamous names, to be sure. Mitch Richmond, Mike Penberthy, Isaiah Rider and (most embarrassingly, for the network that still employs Stephen A. Smith) Slava Medvedenko all became big names on the margins for a Lakers team looking to string together championships.
Though there was little room for Kupchak to work in adding minimum-salaried players to his new team, he wasn’t successful in spying players (especially those who were loath to hold on to the ball) that fit into Jackson’s preferred triangle offense. Unlike Krause, who thrived in that role.
This led to the team’s second-round playoff dismissal in 2003, but the disastrous 2003-04 season was hardly Kupchak’s fault. Bryant’s legal matters, O’Neal’s issues with weight (and combative relationship with Bryant, Buss and others), Gary Payton’s unexpected decline, Karl Malone’s injuries and continued depth issues sent the Lakers (still working with Kobe and Shaq in their primes) to yet another too early postseason defeat.
The 2004 Finals loss allowed the Buss family to try and set things straight. Kobe Bryant was given superstar-level leeway, Jackson wasn’t offered a return contract as coach, while Jim Buss began to wield more and more influence to a point where, by the 2005 draft, the selection of high schooler Andrew Bynum was mostly regarded as a Buss deal.
By then, Jackson had returned to the fold after one year away as coach, and with Bynum’s impressive ascension Kupchak’s status within the organization tended to dim a little. Especially after Kobe Bryant, mindful that you can’t go after the owner’s son in a parking lot on camera, chided Kupchak for his seeming refusal to part with Bynum in exchange for in-prime stars (most notably, Jason Kidd).
That all changed when Kupchak swung the deal for Pau Gasol in 2008, netting the then-Memphis forward after the Grizzlies turned down offer upon offer, finally settling on what appeared to be salary cap clearing-ballast and the hope that Marc Gasol would one day turn into a starting-caliber NBA center. The move didn’t exactly buy Mitch another near-decade in Los Angeles, but the two resulting championships certainly didn’t hurt.
What did hurt was the indelicate run that started in 2011 with the team’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks, and the clamor that followed. An impressive swipe to dump a declining Bynum in exchange for Dwight Howard in 2012 was mitigated by the fact that Bryant never warmed (or even cooled) to Howard, and Dwight’s game was also in decline due to a series of back woes.
The Steve Nash deal, also struck in the summer of 2012, was besotted almost from the outset with inclusion of a first-round pick sent Phoenix’s way, handed over due to misguided fears that Nash would dump the West Coast altogether in a bid to return to his home country of Canada to play for the far-away Toronto Raptors. If lottery luck evades the Lakers’ grasp this May, the team won’t have its own lottery pick in this June’s draft, even after a season that could see the team fail to match 30 wins for the fourth consecutive season.
By the time of the Howard and Nash deals, Jim Buss was in charge – elbowing Jackson out of the way in Phil’s third attempt at publicly pushing for the Lakers’ head coaching job, pushing for Mike D’Antoni while enduring the sort of slings and arrows that were once Kupchak’s alone to endure.
Nowhere was this more evident in the team’s decision to hand Kobe Bryant a shocking two-year, $48.5 million contract extension in the fall of 2013, ensuring (in no co-incidental terms) that a player drafted in 1996 would act as the NBA’s highest-paid player in 2015-16, despite suffering a career-killing Achilles tear late in the ill-fated 2012-13 campaign.
It was a Buss move that was scoffed at by the whole of the NBA, but with LeBron James and Stephen Curry having their way with the league, the Lakers seemed sated to act as a business-first operation as Kobe (the guy who flirted with the Los Angeles Clippers and Bulls as a free agent in 2003, the man who demanded a trade in 2007) ended his career the well-heeled way he saw fit.
Though this was the understood modus operandi, the move to act as a money-maker and legacy-acknowledger did not sit well with impatient fans, most of whom had grown up expecting but a year or two at worst between championship runs. Kupchak was not alone in taking in criticism, Jim Buss deservedly took in most of the heat, but at least Buss had the inherited fortune of being a Lakers co-owner to fall back on.
Mitch Kupchak, the guy who forever seemed to be pairing a move for Trevor Ariza with a move for Timofey Mozgov, with all manner of failed free-agent overtures to mock in the years between, was only left with a near-lifetime (and not a lifeline) as a Laker. And in the end, that wasn’t enough.
This isn’t to say the Los Angeles Lakers are rudderless, moving forward. For all of Magic Johnson’s ridiculous Twitter bluster, he at least has proven in dealings off the court that he can lead the sort of posse needed to tame the wild Western Conference.
If he can back off that bluster and let expected general manager Rob Pelinka run the show as exhaustively as 2017-era general managers need to run things, the Lakers could be fantastic yet again. Pelinka is best known as Bryant’s longtime agent, and though Magic has already made overtures in Kobe’s direction, but just because Kobe Bryant is bat-scrabble crazy, it hardly means Rob Pelinka is.
Mitch Kupchak doesn’t have to be part of the crazy anymore. This can’t help but feel, even during the heat of the NBA’s trade deadline season, like a relief of sorts.
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