What Every GM Should Learn from Lakers Front Office Maestro Mitch Kupchak

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2012

What Every GM Should Learn from Lakers Front Office Maestro Mitch Kupchak

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    The Los Angeles Lakers have long appeared to understand how the West is won, and general manager Mitch Kupchak has remained the brains behind that operation ever since the legendary Jerry West left the post over a decade ago.

    You can't give Kupchak credit for Kobe Bryant's first three titles, but he deserves much of the appreciation for the two that followed. Without the trade that brought Pau Gasol to Los Angeles, it's hard to imagine this team's recent history being the same.

    You can also thank him for this summer.

    The acquisition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the same summer has to rank as one of the all-time greatest accomplishments to take place in a single offseason. Landing Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks on the free-agent market while re-signing big man Jordan Hill wasn't so bad either.

    Does Kupchak know something the rest of the league's GMs don't?

    Or, is it just a lot easier to build a team when that team is the iconic Los Angeles Lakers?

    Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.


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    There was a time when it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers would have to part with both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in order to land Dwight Howard.

    In fact, head coach Mike Brown was ecstatic when he learned from GM Mitch Kupchak that Gasol would remain a Laker. Such a possibility once seemed next to impossible. And, had Kupchak pushed for a deal earlier this summer or even at some point last season, it very well may have been impossible.

    Instead, Kupchak waited the process out.

    It was a risk, to be sure. Allowing the saga to drag on could have increased Howard's price in the event of a prolonged bidding war.

    This situation was unique, though.

    Given the distraction Howard had created for the Orlando Magic, and given the franchise's interest in getting the rebuilding process quickly underway, the Lakers had a fair amount of leverage in this scenario. Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan was in no position to wait this out indefinitely as the Denver Nuggets did when trading Carmelo Anthony.

    In this instance, perhaps the Orlando brass could learn something from Kupchak. Was accelerating a resolution to the situation really worth cutting short the possibility of better deals emerging?

    We may never know.

Adding Options to the Table

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    When talks appear to be reaching an impasse, adding additional options to the discussions is almost always the best way of ensuring both sides get what they want.

    Any shrewd negotiator is well aware of this.

    And yet, it's easier said than done.

    In the Dwight Howard deal, Mitch Kupchak had to work the phones to get the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets involved. Prior to that, the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers were reportedly solicited to serve a similar function in variations of a three-team deal.

    The dilemma was straightforward.

    The Orlando Magic weren't interested in taking back Andrew Bynum on account of the fact that, like Dwight Howard, he had an expiring deal that could create something of a headache next summer. 

    Why acquire another big name who might leave? A rebuilding team would be better served by a collection of young assets without the ability to take their talents elsewhere in the near future.

    Unfortunately, Los Angeles didn't have those kinds of assets. That required Kupchak to recruit additional teams who (a) had something the Magic did want and (b) were interested in taking back Andrew Bynum.

    That's where the Philadelphia 76ers came in. 

    There's a reason there were so many potential scenarios floating around. Rather than pulling the trigger on a deal with which he wasn't entirely satisfied, Kupchak continued looking for more options until all sides got what they wanted.

    Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King might have benefited from a similar strategy before their own Dwight Howard talks broke down. His organization had some valuable guys to trade (e.g. Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks) but couldn't make them fit with Orlando's interests.

A Win-Now Mandate

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    Between the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions, the Los Angeles Lakers won't have much in terms of draft picks or young talent for a while.

    They didn't have a first-round pick this year thanks to the Ramon Sessions trade.

    On the one hand, you could very legitimately claim that Mitch Kupchak has consistently mortgaged the team's future in order to land guys who could make an impact now. The Lakers may pay for that one day with a painful rebuilding process, but they haven't so far.

    More importantly, Kupchak understands something that Lakers fans know just as well: Players like Kobe Bryant only come around so often. Now is the time for Los Angeles to strike, because there may not be another Bryant 10 years from now.

    Los Angeles should absolutely mortgage its future, because the present is such a rare opportunity.

    The trick is being judicious about it and only striking when the right opportunities come along. Former Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith took a "win now" approach when attempting to surround Dwight Howard with talent, and it backfired.

    Instead of building a contender, Smith built a team loaded with declining, overpaid veterans in no position to win a championship. Former Cleveland Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry (currently with the Atlanta Hawks) left the team in a similar state given its bid to impress LeBron James.

    Kupchak has resisted the temptation to make a move for the sake of making a move. That's why the Lakers weren't that busy last season. There just wasn't much out there.

    This summer has clearly been a different story.

The Details Matter Too

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    The Dwight Howard deal may have gotten the most attention this offseason, and landing Steve Nash wasn't chopped liver.

    But, some of Mitch Kupchak's most impressive moves this summer have been far quieter, namely signing Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks to give the bench some legitimate perimeter threats.

    Each will have a defined role (behind Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, respectively), and each will add some scoring punch to a second unit that was sometimes anemic last year.

    These weren't huge changes, but they were smart ones. They addressed an unmet need that could very well be the difference between winning the NBA Finals and just winning the conference finals. 

    We've all seen the difference spot-up-shooting role players have made with clubs like the Miami Heat (Shane Battier, Mike Miller) and San Antonio Spurs (Stephen Jackson, Danny Green). The Lakers should similarly benefit from those kind of complementary pieces.

    Meanwhile, a number of teams out West still seem to be missing that kind of supporting cast. Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti will be relying on essentially the same bench that went cold in the NBA Finals, and the Memphis Grizzlies' Chris Wallace did little to turn his roster into one that will contend.

    Both rotations have some impressive core talent, but the supporting casts may not be championship-caliber.

It Pays to Be a Desirable Destination

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    Let's face it.

    At the end of the day, it really didn't matter that general manager Mitch Kupchak knows how to make a deal. It helped that he works for the Los Angeles Lakers. And, it helps that the Lakers are in Los Angeles.

    Kobe Bryant hanging around doesn't hurt, either.

    Between the franchise's storied history and the city's vast market reach, superstars can force their way there because they want to be there.

    That was the case with both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Front-office acuity aside, Kupchak isn't getting his hands on either of these guys if he's running the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    So, what are the "Clevelands" of the world to do? For that matter, what were the Orlando Magic to do?

    They couldn't very well turn their humidity into year-round 70-degree weather. Nor could they rewrite history to include a franchise legacy on par with the Purple and Gold, although some of the writers over at Disney might have been able to give it a stab.

    The best organizations still find a way to make themselves unique and attractive.

    Mark Cuban turned the Dallas Mavericks into a big player by proving he'd spend aggressively to win, and by showing that he knew how to put on a great show.

    The San Antonio Spurs did the same in the very opposite way, promoting a low-key professionalism that's kept Tim Duncan in silver and black for the duration of his career.

    The organizations losing the big names aren't entirely to blame. Some guys just want storybook careers in massive markets where everyone hears about it. But, organizations like Cleveland and Orlando could have made those decisions a lot harder if they somehow distinguished themselves.

    Kupchak can't take all the credit on this front, but he sure picked the right team to work for. Perhaps a few general managers could learn something from that.