Mitch Kupchak: Genius or Just Plain Lucky?

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IFebruary 2, 2008

With Friday's news that the Lakers had traded for Pau Gasol, one thing became crystal clear—the Lakers better be good.

With their team payroll now comfortably in luxury tax land due to their commitment to the remaining three years and $49 million on Gasol's contract, the Lakers' window is officially open.

When the Lakers traded Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, Mitch Kupchak was blasted universally. Although I hated the trade at the time, I understood why Kupchak did it.

The Lakers had received Butler, along with Brian Grant and Lamar Odom, in the Shaquille O'Neal trade. Odom and Butler were both extremely talented players, but couldn't quite find the same type of chemistry in Hollywood as they had enjoyed in Miami.

In fact, Butler's game didn't begin to flourish until Odom missed the last 17 games due to a shoulder injury. There was even a four-game stretch in April of 2005 when Butler led the Lakers in scoring.

The problem was that even with Butler's stellar play the team still went 2-15 without Odom. Butler had one more year on his contract and was eligible for a contract extension.

Brown, who had been suspended by the Wizards during the playoffs because he skipped a practice, was a restricted free agent.

The Lakers saw no reason to give Butler an extension if they couldn't win games whether he was playing with or without Odom.

Kupchak seized the rare opportunity to trade big for small without having to commit more than three years to Brown. Perhaps he felt a change of scenery would give the top pick in the 2001 Draft the opportunity to flourish.

Kupchak gave Brown a two-year deal with a team option for a third year. That wasn't surprising. What was surprising was that Kupchak had exercised the third year on Brown's contract during the first year of the deal, even though Brown had shown no signs of a career revival.

There had to be a reason behind it. Perhaps it was because Kupchak felt that all of the top potential 2006 free agents, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, were all but guaranteed to sign extensions with their current clubs.

Since there was no reason to position themselves to have cap space, Kupchak knew that the $9 million he was committing to Brown, could be utilized to trade for the type of player that would finally put the Lakers over the top.

How did he know this?

In February of 2005, the Warriors got Baron Davis from the Hornets thanks in part to the expiring contract of Dale Davis.

In January of 2006, the Kings got Ron Artest from the Pacers because of Peja Stojakovic's expiring contract.

In July of 2006, the Hornets obtained Tyson Chandler all because of P.J. Brown's expiring contract. 

In July of 2007, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves only because of Theo Ratliff's expiring contract.

When Kupchak exercised the option on Brown's contract he was buying himself another year. Kwame's skills weren't the asset that Kupchak wanted, his huge contract was.

Being the top pick in the draft gave Kwame the rights to certain contract minimums and salary increases that Kupchak knew would be hard to obtain once he used the luxury tax amnesty rule to get rid of Brian Grant. Otherwise, his only options would have been trading Kobe or Lamar, two things he tried his hardest to avoid having to do.

Am I giving Kupchak too much credit? Is it possible for someone to go from being the NBA's worst GM to Executive of the Year?

If you look at Kupchak's résumé he's actually done a pretty good job, given the circumstances.

You can't hold him responsible for the Shaq trade. Besides, now that Shaq has two and a half season and $50 million left on his deal, that one looks better and better by the day.

Take into account that Butler became Kwame but Kwame became Gasol and you'll see that in the end he got Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and the draft pick used to obtain Jordan Farmar for Shaq.

He has also reversed each of his draft blunders by trading Brian Cook for Trevor Ariza and Kareem Rush for the draft pick that became Ronny Turiaf.

Even Sasha Vujacic looks like he's gonna be a major role player—he's Kobe's best back-up since he had Brian Shaw.

Kupchak's decision to not only draft Andrew Bynum but to not trade him for Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal looks brilliant.

The drafting of Javaris Crittenton also paid off since it ignited a fire under Jordan Farmar. His decision to take the best player on the board instead of trying to look like a genius gave him one of the pieces the Grizzlies were looking for in a trade. Had he drafted Stanko Barac or Renaldas Seibutis he might not have been able to pull it off without including Farmar.

Kupchak hasn't made any more bad picks than Jerry West. The Logo might be considered the greatest GM in NBA history but people tend to forget about David Rivers, Ken Barlow and Sam Jacobsen.

Kupchak might have been the one responsible for giving Devean George that horrible contract but West was the one that drafted him.

West's biggest blunder, for which he gets no blame, was giving Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal contracts that would reach a crossroads during the same off-season of 2004.

I am in no way saying that Kupchak is West's equal. I'm not that dumb. What I will say is that Kupchak has put a team together by being patient and it could pay enormous dividends.

The Lakers have incredible depth at each position and excluding the Pistons, will have the NBA's best starting five on paper when Bynum returns. Chris Mihm is now this team's twelfth man.

In the past six months, Kupchak has replaced Smush Parker, Brian Cook, Maurice Evans and Javaris Crittenton with Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, and Pau Gasol.

Who would have thought back in 2005, that Elgin Baylor would have won NBA Executive of the Year and that Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge would be battling it out in 2008?

Does that mean Isiah Thomas might actually know what he's doing?

I'm not ready to go that far.

To read a related article on how this trade impacts the Lakers in the long-term, please click here


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