The Los Angeles Lakers are somewhere between rebuilding and epic uncertainty, but the one sure thing going forward is that there's only one man in position to turn this thing around.
And no, that man is not Kobe Bryant. Bryant needs help, and general manager Mitch Kupchak can give him that help. According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, the organization has "agreed to a multiyear extension" with Kupchak, ensuring that the Lakers' future might just look a little something like its past.
This isn't going to be easy, but it's doable—especially with a known and proven commodity at the helm.
Los Angeles is about to embark upon two offseasons with loads of cap space, rare position for a franchise that's typically confronting luxury taxes. That means there will be plenty of personnel decisions to be made, talent to be evaluated, deals to be struck.
Kupchak will be one extremely busy GM over the next two summers.
But he's also extremely well-equipped to get the job done.
Mitch Kupchak is unflappable. You can rest assured he's spent all season cooly analyzing what's going wrong and how to fix it. Some things will fix themselves. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will start the season healthy. Younger pieces will be more experienced, thanks in large part to a season in which they were so depended upon.
Even without Kupchak's magic, the Lakers will be better.
But he'll have a lot to do with their ceiling and how rapidly they improve. Much like the best of college coaches, Kupchak is a recruiter at heart. He understands what it takes to bring in talent and put it in position to flourish. He builds it, and they come.
In his own modest words, Kupchak sees Los Angeles as a self-sustaining mechanism of sorts. The Lakers will acquire new blood, because that's just what the Lakers do, per USA Today's Sam Amick:
I'm confident that over time, that we're going to be able to assemble a team that's competitive, fun to watch. The advantages that this franchise and this city have always had remain, which is our fan base, it's a great city, players like playing here, there are a lot of diverse components of this city that attract players. The organization itself, its legacy. So those things don't change.
And neither does Kupchak.
He's been on the job since 2000, giving the Zen Master the pieces to win titles, sustaining this team's vitality in a post-Showtime era. Better than any other, he understands that losing isn't an acceptable outcome for a fanbase that's become accustomed to everything but.
Without Jerry Buss or Phil Jackson around, Kupchak is the closest thing to an executive cornerstone—a face talent can associate with the franchise. A guarantee that the future will be bright.
Perhaps more than any of his administrative functions, Kupchak's value is largely symbolic. He sends an unmistakable message that all is not lost in Los Angeles. Nothing is getting blown up. There's confidence, and where there's confidence, there will be some measure of continuity.
That perception of stability will be key to landing free-agent talent, key to keeping drafted talent down the road. It's one thing for the Lakers to have a bad season. That was unavoidable. It would be quite another for the organization to be perceived like it's in disarray.
There's an important difference in the eyes of those who matter.
The Kobe Bryant Factor
Speaking of those who matter...
While Kupchak told Amick that the organization "will not consult with" Bryant on a decision about Mike D'Antoni's future, you can rest fairly assured Bryant's opinion is already well-known.
After all, he also told Amick that he and Bryant stay in touch, saying:
[Bryant] wants the same thing we want, which is to win as much as possible as soon as possible. I meet with him. (It's) not on a regular basis, but in the last two or three months we have met several times, and he gets it.
Chances are Kupchak gets it, too. Even if there's no consultation with Bryant, there's always a bottom line with him. He's still the Lakers' best player, and Kupchak has every reason to keep him happy. Put another way, if Bryant is opposed to playing for D'Antoni (and the writing on the wall suggests just that), then that's that.
The Lakers can't pursue an earnest turnaround with an unhappy superstar. Bryant might be able to put on a brave face and remain professional, but he's not especially good at keeping secrets in his old age. If he were disaffected, we'd know all about it.
So we can more or less assume D'Antoni won't be around, and we can further assume Bryant will have had something to do with it. But don't for a second believe the organization will ever be up front about that. Kupchak is too smart for that, saying the organization will wait until the end of the season and review everything—D'Antoni included.
Again, it's about messaging. This isn't a franchise that's worried, not a team beset by knee-jerk reactions, not a team that's run by Bryant. It's methodical, it's smart, it's systematic.
Kupchak and Bryant just happen to talk from time to time. That's all.
But let's face it—the fact that Bryant and Kupchak talk from time to time is precisely why Kupchak is sticking around. He has rapport with the league's most iconic player this side of MJ. Kupchak has a finger on pulse, putting him in prime position to keep Bryant happy.
That means a functional locker room. A motivated superstar. Improved chemistry.
It means the Lakers will have a chance.
Make no mistake about it. Kupchak's extended stay is about far more than symbolism and massaging Kobe's ego. By any concrete metric, he's the right man for the job.
Take a long look around the NBA and find a general manager with a penchant for making better trades. Find a GM who could have acquired Pau Gasol in his prime, who could have turned some draft picks into Steve Nash, who could have landed Dwight Howard in exchange for a broken-down Andrew Bynum.
Not all of those deals panned out as perfectly as one would have hoped, but they were all fantastic deals.
On the one hand, that's a testament to Kupchak's acumen and ability as a superior negotiator. He's adept at adding options to the table and finding third parties to get a transaction off the ground. He understands that making something work isn't about low-balling offers—it's about making everyone happy.
On the other hand, Kupchak's penchant for wheeling and dealing also says something about his already-established relationships with the rest of the league. The human element shouldn't be overlooked. Being a successful GM has as much to do with knowing how to talk to people as it does crunching the numbers or evaluating personnel.
Don't read too much into the fact that Kupchak has yet to be named NBA Executive of the Year. Neither has San Antonio's R.C. Buford. That award is usually reserved for candidates who successfully turned a team around overnight, and the Lakers haven't had many opportunities to do so thanks to their sustained success.
That could obviously change soon enough now that an overnight turnaround is exactly what's in order.
The better indicator of Kupchak's prowess is precisely the fact that he hasn't had to turn this team around in so long. He's consistently found the right role players to keep this ship afloat. A lot of the credit can and should go to Phil Jackson for always making those pieces fit, but Jackson wouldn't have gone far without quality resources at his disposal in the first place.
Kupchak is in superior position to evaluate those resources going forward, both in-house (Gasol) and around the league. He knows this team inside and out. There's no learning curve, and the organization has little time for a learning curve.
Beyond his league-wide connections, Kupchak also knows how to navigate whatever's going on with Lakers ownership. Jim Buss remains an untested decision-maker, and perhaps not an especially good one given how the whole Jackson-D'Antoni saga played out. Counterbalancing that could be Kupchak's most lasting legacy assuming the Lakers figure this out.
And if they do figure this out, look for Kupchak to finally get that recognition as Exec of the Year. He's due.
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