Has Mitch Kupchak Cost the Lakers the Title?

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IMay 28, 2009

LOS ANGELES - JULY 10:  Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers takes questions from the the media during a press conference announcing Rudy Tomjanovich as the new head coach on July 10, 2004 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Before Game Four of the Western Conference Finals, I was going to write that I wasn’t referring to this year’s title but next year’s. However, after the blowout in Game 4, this might apply to this year’s title as well.

He calls himself "The Machine," but after watching his contributions to the team this season, Laker fans might just as well want to rename him "The Latrine."

I am referring, of course, to Sasha Vujacic, a player that his teammates used to call "11 A.M.," because he would hit all of his jumpers during morning shoot-around but fail to make them in the evening when it counted.

Then a strange phenomenon occurred. Last season, Vujacic began hitting those long-range three-pointers in actual games. And he hit them with some consistency.

Funny thing. This newly discovered consistency coincided with the expiration of his contract. So, I began to conjecture if we might be looking at a one-year wonder.

Although he performed fairly well in the Western Conference playoffs, he was a complete dud in the NBA Finals against the Celtics. Call it pressure. Call it strong defense. Vujacic did not come anywhere near matching up to his self-chosen nickname, "The Machine."

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The fact that a professional athlete has to make up his own nickname rather than have it originate with the fans, the media or the players in the league or on his team shows that the player is lacking something.

In Vujacic’s case it was self-confidence, and it showed in the Celtics series at both ends of the court. It also showed up in contract negotiations.

Just like he created his own nickname, this time Vujacic, through his agent, created a phantom European basketball team that was willing to sign him for boxcar numbers should he decide not to sign with the Lakers.

At that point, I began my own campaign advising Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak here and on other blogs to call Vujacic’s bluff. If there was a European team out there that really wanted him, let them step up and put out a number.

At the time, Vujacic was making just under $2 million a year and averaging 8.8 points per game and shooting 45 percent. However, the year before, he only averaged 4.4 points per game and shot 39 percent.

I figured Vujacic was much closer to the 4.4 PPG than the 8.8 PPG, and I was right. This year he only averaged 5.8 PPG and shot a little under 39 percent. His three-point percentage dropped from 43.7 percent down to 36.3 percent.

After the Celtics series, I urged Kupchak to save the team’s mid-level exemption and just sign Vujacic to a one-year contract or two year’s at the most for $3 million tops and then see how he performed.

But on July 26, 2008, Kupchak succumbed to the Vujacic bluff and offered him a 3-year, $15 million contract. There went the Lakers mid-level exemption.

When I first thought about writing this article, I was looking toward next year. With three key players (Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, and Shannon Brown) all becoming unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, where is the money to keep them?

I’ll tell you where it is. Sasha Vujacic has it. And believe me, he is not going to give it back.

That was mistake Number One. Mistake Number Two was the Andrew Bynum contract.

Kupchak could have waited until the end of the season to negotiate with Bynum’s people. If he had, the Lakers could have saved much of the $58 million they promised their young center over four years.

Bynum should be worth no more than half of that, $7 million-$8 million at most per year. Unable to prove that he is durable so far or that he can recover and condition himself in a reasonable amount of time or make defensive rotations, Bynum and his people would certainly in their wildest dreams never expect the Lakers to dole out $58 million this summer.

It certainly would be nice to have some of that cash around to keep Odom, Ariza and Brown for another couple of years.

Losing one or possibly two of them would certainly damage the Lakers’ chances of competing for a title next year, and with little money in the coffers, there is no chance of jumping into the rich free agent sweepstakes.

So, Kupchak’s faulty negotiations have crippled the Lakers for years to come unless there is a performance clause in either of Vujacic’s or Bynum’s contracts, which I doubt. And remember, Kobe Bryant could opt out of his contract at the end of this season.

But what about this season? This year’s NBA title?

With Vujacic, Bynum and Jordan Farmar not performing up to par, it is obvious that the Lakers are one player shy of being a stronger, more aggressive team.

I cannot fault Kupchak on Farmar’s contract. With Derek Fisher into the final stages of his career, the Lakers needed a point guard off the bench to give him some relief. Since decent point guards don’t grow on trees, Kupchak had to sign Farmar.

But instead of Vujacic, the Lakers could have had that one player that would have put them over the top this year.

Having the starters playing maximum minutes not just during the playoffs but throughout the second half of the regular season has led to sheer exhaustion physically and mentally.

If there is a Lakers’ fan out there who doesn’t think what a GM does in July has a direct effect on whether the team plays in June or not, then think again.