At long last, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak can sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
For a moment, anyway.
Pau Gasol's happy, Dwight Howard's healthy, Steve Nash is learning the ropes, Metta World Peace is hitting corner threes again and Kobe Bryant, though sidelined for the rest of the preseason with a foot injury, has looked good so far and should be ready to go when the regular season tips off on October 30th.
As for the not-so-small issue of Howard hitting free agency come July 1st, 2013, Kupchak isn't fretting. He has no plans to push the possibility of an extension on Dwight, knowing full well that it's in the All-Star center's best interest to play out the remainder of his contract and re-up for more years and more money thereafter.
As he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
I have not asked that question nor do I intend to ask the question. I hear he's embraced the city. Certainly, everything he says publicly is positive. But there really is nothing to pursue there from that point of view. It doesn't make any sense for him to do anything other than wait for this summer.
Instead, Kupchak appears to have put his faith in the appeal of the Lakers brand and the product he's put together to convince Howard to make a long-term commitment when the time is right:
Winning a championship wouldn't hurt. If we didn't win it this year, would that factor into his decision? I don't know. I would think that if he has a great year and there's great chemistry and the city embraces him like I think we do and will, I'm not sure it would be a factor. But that's something that he'll have to decide. He doesn't have to decide that now.
If there's anyone in the NBA who understands how to slow-play his hand to the best effect, who knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, it's
Kenny Rogers Mitch Kupchak. That's essentially how he wound up swiping Howard from the Orlando Magic without surrendering Pau Gasol—by letting the Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets fall by the wayside before pulling the trigger on his own blockbuster strike.
The same goes for his pursuit of Steve Nash, which he claims was originally the brainchild of Jim Buss, the son of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. Whereas the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks blitzed Nash with flashy presentations, lavish meals and emotional appeals, the Lakers simply made a phone call and allowed the idea of playing close to his kids take hold of Nash's thinking.
Of course, Kupchak and company can count on a luxury that only they possess—the cachet of being the Lakers. They have been, are and likely always will be akin to the most beautiful girl in the room at a party; everyone wants to buy them a kabab.
Or, rather, just about every superstar or future Hall of Famer with a legacy to cement wants to wear the purple and gold. While most teams stumble over themselves in pursuit of top talent, the Lakers need only show the slightest interest in a superstar for him to reciprocate.
It's the same courtship dance that Pat Riley learned during his days with "Showtime" and that he's since put into practice with the Miami Heat. Never has he (nor anyone else, for that matter) used it to greater effect than during the summer of 2010, when he lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade on South Beach.
But it was six years earlier, in 2004, when these two minds met. Kupchak had a choice to make. The choice wasn't between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant but rather between suitors to whom to offload the former. In the end, Kupchak turned to Riley, under whose tutelage he won titles with the Lakers as a player during the 1980s.
Two years later, Riles had another ring as a coach. Two years after that, the Lakers were back in the NBA Finals, with the help of one player (Lamar Odom) who came to L.A. by way of the Shaq trade and, indirectly, with another (Caron Butler) who was swapped for another (Kwame Brown), who, in turn, was traded again...for Pau Gasol.
Riley got the title he coveted and another rebuilding job shortly thereafter. Kupchak, on the other hand...well, what else?
He played it slow. He patiently picked up pieces and built a team around Kobe, deflecting pressure and anger from within and without the organization along the way.
Cool is the rule, says the Tao of Mitch. Critics can crow all they want about how the Lakers—with their massive (and locally vindictive) TV deal, historical appeal and attractive location—have all the advantages, how Kupchak should be putting together superteams with the deck of resources stacked in his favor.
Still, someone has to do it. Someone has to turn those golden lemons into delicious lemonade. Might as well be the guy who not only learned the tricks of the trade from one of the most successful executives in NBA history (Jerry West), but has also become one himself.
And so it figures to go with Dwight Howard. Mitch will let the team do the talking. He'll let the experience of wearing a Lakers jersey, of playing with three other stars and competing for a championship, sink in. Heck, he'll probably even let the rest of the league—most notably the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks—wine and dine Howard in free agency, should the situation come to that.
Kupchak can practice patience because he has again put his team in position to win, on all fronts. He trusts the efficacy of what he's built and the direction in which the Lakers are likely headed for the foreseeable future. He doesn't need to hound Howard into signing on the dotted line now, or even pester him to do so later, because he's already set the plan in motion.
Now, he needs only to let it all play out, allow the chips to fall where they may.
In the meantime, who could blame Mitch if he decided to put his feet up, perhaps even during a game?
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