Celebrity sightings are more the norm than the exception when you live in Los Angeles, especially if you're familiar with TMZ's hot spots (like King's Road in West Hollywood, Restaurant Row in West LA, most anywhere in Beverly Hills, etc.).
But, as someone who grew up watching the Lakers, there's nothing for me quite like happening upon a franchise legend unexpectedly.
Which is why, when I ran into Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak while pumping gas over the weekend, I couldn't help but be taken aback. No, not because the guy's 6'9, wears awesome sunglasses and drives a stylish-yet-unassuming Benz, though those factors all made the spectacle that much more child-wonderment-inducing.
Rather, it was because Mitch was a key role player on two Showtime champions, learned the tricks of the front-office trade under Jerry West, oversaw two title-winners built with The Logo's handiwork, constructed a two-time Larry O'Brien Trophy-winning team of his own and now has the Lakers back in position to compete for the crown with a summer of wheeling-and-dealing for the record books.
Eat your heart out, Magic Johnson!
Still, for a guy of his physical and reputational stature, Kupchak remains an unassuming giant. When I yelled across the the gas station, "MITCH! GOOD WORK THIS SUMMER!", he replied by sheepishly waving his hand and quietly mouthing "Thank you" before ducking into his shiny whip and driving off into what I assume was an early-afternoon sunset.
Like a boss. True story, to which my friend Rhoee can attest.
Such is the Tao of Mitch, from which the rest of the NBA's front-office power brokers could (and probably should) learn plenty.
The Tao of Mitch dictates that a good GM keep calm and carry on, even (and especially) when the situation at hand seems to be beyond repair.
In 2004, following the Lakers' five-game ouster at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, Kupchak was faced with perhaps the toughest choice in franchise history. The Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal feud had reached a breaking point, with Bryant's impending free agency (and demand that Shaq go if he were to stay) forcing Mitch's hand.
Should the Lakers stand by an aging-but-still-effective Diesel or cast their lot with a young-and-talented-but-pugnacious Kobe?
In truth, it was team owner Jerry Buss (not Mitch) who made the final decision, though it was Kupchak who parlayed Shaq into a package of pieces from the Miami Heat. Sure, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and draft picks didn't look so hot while the Heat were on their way to the title in 2006.
But when Odom emerged as a vital role player on two championship squads, Butler indirectly turned into Pau Gasol and the down years yielded Andrew Bynum, the beauty of Kupchak's maneuvering came into greater focus.
Much as it did this past summer. Rewind to last December, and you'll hear Lakers fans crowing about how Kupchak gave up Odom, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, for a bag of peanuts (i.e. a draft pick and a trade exception). Fast forward back to July, and you'll hear Lakers fans praising Mitch for using said exception to bring Steve Nash to LA.
Put some facial hair on Kupchak and the Kenny Rogers comparisons might make too much sense.
Speaking of holding and folding, Mitch Kupchak's uncanny feel for when to do which also extends to his understanding of how to placate a superstar in a way that doesn't completely cripple the franchise's hopes.
And by that, I'm referring, of course, to the summer of 2007. The Lakers were coming off their second first-round exit at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in as many seasons and had a disgruntled Black Mamba to deal with as a result.
Naturally, Kobe lobbied for a trade and nearly got his wish with a move to the Dallas Mavericks. But, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban told The Ben and Skin Show in Dallas this past August, it was Kupchak who talked Kobe down from the ledge:
“Literally, between Dancing with the Stars practices I had thought we traded for Kobe Bryant. I even talked to their owner and thought we were going to have a done deal, and [Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak changed [Kobe’s] mind and brought him back.”
And when Kobe started mouthing off about how the Lakers should swap Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd (WARNING: Kobe says naughty things in this video), Mitch (once again) didn't panic. Instead, he brought Derek Fisher back to LA, allowed Andrew Bynum to blossom during the season and then, when Bynum went down with a subluxation of his knee cap, cashed in his chips for Pau Gasol (more on that later).
Not that every GM will necessarily have opportunity to acquire a player as talented as Gasol for so little cost (as it seemed at the time). Even so, as the Tao of Mitch dictates, patience isn't just a virtue—it's the key to successfully navigating stormy seas without throwing your crew overboard.
Especially when there are two Larry O'Brien Trophies waiting at port.
It's not exactly fair to give Mitch all the credit for the Lakers' recent successes though. Some of the praise belongs to Jim Buss, the son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who saw a potential All-Star in a 17-year-old man-child named Andrew Bynum in the weeks leading up to the 2005 NBA Draft.
It was also Jim who insisted that the Lakers hang onto Bynum, even as Kobe demanded that the kid be offered up as a trade-market sacrifice to the basketball gods for Jason Kidd.
Individual accolades aside, the entire front office did precisely what any team should do when trying to mold a raw, young talent into a bona fide asset: hire great coaches whose task it is to groom that prospect into a productive player. The Lakers did just that when they brought in franchise legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to teach Bynum, who'd hardly played basketball until high school, how to succeed in the NBA.
With Kareem's help, Bynum evolved into an All-Star center and one of the most dominant offensive forces in the league. Granted, injuries held 'Drew back for some time, as did his mercurial attitude, and his working relationship with Kareem didn't last long.
Nonetheless, the Lakers understood full well the importance of maximizing their initial investment (a No. 10 pick) with the proper environment and have reaped the rewards ever since...
...the most recent reward being Dwight Howard, the best big man on the planet.
Like any GM worth his salt, Mitch understood (and, presumably, still understands) that every player and draft pick at one's disposal must also be viewed as an asset to be used to acquire other assets and reshape a roster. That, it would seem, is what happened with Andrew Bynum, whom the Lakers coached up to All-Star status and then "sold" via trade when his value was the highest it'd ever been.
To be sure, there were a number of other factors that seemed to conspire in Kupchak's favor with regard to finally ending the "Dwightmare." Dwight had to opt into the final year of his contract and later realize that following in Shaq's footsteps isn't so bad, the Orlando Magic had to resolve to rebuild after salting away their hopes for contention, the Dallas Mavericks had to miss out on Deron Williams, the Brooklyn Nets had to do something about Brook Lopez, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets had to step into the picture as eager partners, and the Lakers, for their part, had to exert the ethereal influence that comes with being the Lakers.
That being said, with great power (and resources) comes great responsibility, which Mitch has handled ably. As with resolving prior circumstances with Kobe and Shaq (and Kobe again), Kupchak slow-played his hand, allowing the Nets to fall out of the running and the Rockets to recede as legitimate suitors and leaving his team as the only viable option.
Then, with the Magic resigned to losing Dwight for pennies on the dollar and everyone else pleased with the potential outcome, Mitch pulled the trigger...and still managed to keep Pau Gasol.
So, to recap: Bynum plus spare parts plus draft pick equals Dwight plus spare parts for the Lakers.
Like I said, patience is key.
By leveraging patience and prestige (not to mention considerable financial resources), Mitch has managed to pull off more than his fair share of stunning trades.
As well as Kupchak did in essentially robbing Magic GM Rob Hennigan blind, the move for Howard was hardly surprising or beyond the realm of expectation at the time. After all, the basketball world had anticipated that a Bynum-for-Dwight trade might happen for months, even more so once the Lakers were the only ones left in the running.
The bigger and more shocking coup, as it turns out, was the Pau Gasol trade in 2008. In the surprise of this century, Kupchak stole Pau from the Memphis Grizzlies for a package that consisted of Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton (now better known for his gun play with Gilbert Arenas), Marc Gasol and a pair of first-round picks.
Granted, the trade doesn't quite look like highway robbery now that the younger Gasol has emerged as an All-Star in Memphis and that one of those picks was eventually used to acquire Marreese Speights.
Nonetheless, with moves for Gasol and Howard, Kupchak provided good GMs with two textbook examples of how to win big when dealing with their more inexperienced and/or inept counterparts.
Chris Wallace, who was in charge of the front office in Memphis in 2008 and remains there to this day, is widely known as one of the worst executives in all of basketball, dating back to his days with the Boston Celtics. One need only glance over his resume to understand why (lowlights include Joe Johnson for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers, OJ Mayo for Kevin Love, and Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden).
And a quick note about the Lakers' advantage of playing in a massive market: as much as some would prefer to complain about how the Purple and Gold have an unfair leg-up because they play in LA and have a sweet TV deal, it's all too easy to forget that most NBA teams are owned by billionaires who could afford to take a hit to their wallet if they wanted to win.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are the only team in the league whose ownership (the Buss family) relies on the team's fiscal viability, since the Busses don't derive their wealth these days from outside businesses.
All of which is to say, penny-pinching billionaires—and not the Lakers' ingenius use of resources—constitute the cause of suffering for so many NBA fans who feel their teams have been jobbed by the system. Sorry 'bout that.
Enough ranting, though. If we're going to talk about the ingenius manipulation of resources, we might as well turn to the Tao of Mitch for another blockbuster move that's on par with the Pau Gasol trade in terms of assets sacrificed and overall execution: the Steve Nash trade.
As ESPN's Marc Stein relayed after the surprising July 4th move went down, Mitch did brilliantly to convince Lakers ownership to approve a three-year contract for the 39-year-old and (more importantly) convince Nash and his agent not only that the team was interested, but also that Nash should set aside his pre-existing distaste for the Purple and Gold (established over eight years of rivalry with the Phoenix Suns) and that Bill Duffy, Nash's agent, should coax fickle Suns owner Robert Sarver into making a deal with the enemy.
Because it would be good for Nash!
What Steiny Mo (Bill Simmon's nickname for Marc Stein) failed to divulge is that Mitch is a modern-day Jedi whose power to change the basketball landscape with his mind is unparalleled.
Okay, so maybe that's not entirely true, but the fact remains, it only took Kupchak a few days (and the ineptitude of the New York Knicks and the Toronto Raptors) to turn Nash from a mortal enemy of the Lakers to a guy who just might take a bullet for Kobe.
Okay, maybe that's taking things a bit far, too. Nevertheless, despite being shunned by those front-office folks who wouldn't dare shake hands with the Lakers (most notably, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge), Mitch has himself been more than willing to set aside his pride and turn the other cheek in pursuit of improvement.
Because, as the Tao of Mitch dictates, being a GM isn't about pride or personal vendettas. Rather, it's about results.
And, on occasion, turning the universe on its head.
Admittedly, Mitch Kupchak is much better at reeling in superstars (who still play like superstars) than, say, filling out a roster with working parts.
Though, in that endeavor, he's still among the best in the business. In 2003, Mitch brought Gary Payton and Karl Malone to LA, and though The Glove and The Mailman didn't deliver a title, they contributed enough to drag the Kobe-Shaq feud into the NBA Finals, wherein the Pistons wiped the floor with them.
Over the years, Kupchak drafted a slew of role players—Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton—who contributed to two title-winning teams, and used another (Brian Cook) to acquire Trevor Ariza.
And while trading Vladimir Radmanovic to the Charlotte Bobcats for Adam Morrison may seem silly now, the other player that came back to the Lakers in that deal (Shannon Brown) proved to be a valuable backup for Kobe Bryant.
Mitch was also prescient enough to essentially jettison Ariza for Ron Artest in 2009. The move was panned by some and has caused many a headache within the Lakers organization but ultimately yielded a more forceful defensive performance against Paul Pierce in the 2010 NBA Finals.
After this summer, Kupchak can add keeping Jordan Hill at a discount and signing Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks to dirt-cheap contracts to his list of minor-but-important victories. As the Tao of Mitch teaches, superstars are all but essential for those hoping to contend, but a team can only employ so many of them at one time.