LOS ANGELES — The Charlotte Hornets may have found their next general manager in Mitch Kupchak.
Kupchak ran the Lakers' basketball operations department for 17 years (2000-2017), helping the team win five titles during his tenure. Along the way, he made several good decisions, some bad and two ugly ones in 2016 that would ultimately lead to his dismissal.
The Ugly: Deng + Mozgov 2016 Signings
Best to get the obvious out of the way. Kupchak badly misread the market when he signed Luol Deng ($72 million) and Timofey Mozgov ($64 million) to a pair of four-year deals in 2016.
Following Kobe Bryant's retirement, the Lakers had significant money to spend that summer. But with the national television deal boosting the salary cap by $24 million, so did most of the league.
When the top stars (like Kevin Durant) chose other teams over the Lakers, Kupchak invested heavily into two low-impact veterans in Deng and Mozgov.
Each franchise was obligated to pay nearly $85 million in salary for the 2016-17 season, but Kupchak could have doled that out to players on one-year deals or use the cap room to acquire guys on short-term deals in trades like he did previously with Roy Hibbert and Jeremy Lin.
Perhaps the Jim Buss timeline, which promised a competitive playoff run by 2017, led to hasty decisions. Buss, who remains a part owner of the franchise, was the top basketball executive.
Even if Buss were the driving force for Deng and Mozgov (without alleging that's the case), it's the general manager's job to dissuade ownership from bad decisions.
Ultimately, it was their undoing. Team governor Jeanie Buss removed Jim from power, along with Kupchak, in February 2017.
Replacements Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka have since unloaded the Mozgov deal, but it cost the team its 2015 second overall pick in D'Angelo Russell. The Lakers also traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the February trade deadline—the price for restoring the team's lost flexibility.
Deng remains, and if the Lakers need the salary-cap space to sign two maximum-salaried All-Stars this summer in free agency (like LeBron James and Paul George) and keep Julius Randle, they will need to offload him.
The price will be steep, starting with at least one first-round pick.
The Good: Acquiring Pau Gasol
The 2008 deal was widely viewed as a steal at the time, although Marc Gasol went on to have a tremendous career with the Grizzlies. Pau Gasol immediately propelled the Lakers into contention.
Leading up to the deal, Kobe Bryant was unhappy with the team's progress, even demanding a trade before the season. Kupchak weathered that storm, deftly changing the Lakers' fate.
If Kupchak were living in the shadow of Jerry West, who he mentored under before taking over as general manager in 2000, the Gasol trade was a career-maker.
Gasol and Bryant went on to three NBA Finals, winning two.
Kupchak also had success throughout his run, adding quality role players to his star power. In the 2000 offseason, he traded Glen Rice for Horace Grant (in a complex four-team deal) to play alongside Shaquille O'Neal. The 2000-01 Lakers nearly swept through the postseason, with a single loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals.
The Gary Payton and Karl Malone signings in 2003 got the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
He also traded for Trevor Ariza in 2007 and Shannon Brown in 2009. Ariza played a key role in the team's 2009 title; Brown did the same the following year.
Kupchak's free-agent signings were a mixed bag, but Ron Artest was a huge reason why the Lakers got past the Boston Celtics in 2010.
With the team's success of Kupchak's first decade, the Lakers rarely had high draft picks. Kupchak still had many solid gets throughout, including Luke Walton (32nd in 2003; currently serving as the Lakers' head coach), Sasha Vujacic (27th in 2004), Ronny Turiaf (37th in 2005), Jordan Farmar (26th in 2006) and Marc Gasol (48th in 2007).
His lone lottery pick in that stretch was Andrew Bynum (10th in 2005), a 2011-12 All-Star who helped the Lakers win two titles. Bad knees limited his career, but Bynum was one of Kupchak's best selections.
In more recent years, Kupchak drafted Julius Randle (seventh in 2014), Russell (second in 2015), Nance Jr. (27th in 2015), Brandon Ingram (second in 2016) and Ivica Zubac (32nd in 2016). Clarkson (46th in 2014) was acquired via trade from the Washington Wizards. So too was Kareem Rush (20th in 2002) via the Toronto Raptors.
In retrospect, Kristaps Porzingis (fourth to New York Knicks) was the right call in 2015, but the draft is an inexact science. Kupchak has a strong track record, despite rarely drafting in the lottery.
While the trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash didn't pan out, the moves were widely lauded at the time. A first-rounder was initially sent to the Orlando Magic for Howard, but protections held, and the Lakers are giving up their 2018 second-round pick instead.
Los Angeles will also lose its 2018 first-rounder for Nash after protections enabled the team to draft Lonzo Ball, Ingram and Russell.
Had Bryant and Nash remained healthy throughout that run, the Lakers would have been more of a postseason force in 2013.
The Bad: It's Complicated
At the time, it was a hot-button issue: Would West have found a way to bridge the gap between O'Neal and Bryant?
The O'Neal trade was controversial, more so when Kupchak sent one of the best pieces (Caron Butler) in the deal to the Wizards a year later for Kwame Brown. Brown was underwhelming, but the Gasol trade wouldn't have happened without his expiring salary.
Arguably, all of the above belongs in the "Good" section if the ends justify the means. Lamar Odom was a major part of the Lakers' second championship run of the Kupchak era. The team dealt O'Neal in 2004 and won another title in 2009. That's impressive.
Another ambiguous mark on Kupchak's record is the failed Chris Paul trade. David Stern, then commissioner of the NBA who was also acting as owner of the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), blocked a deal that was agreed upon by Hornets general manager Dell Demps.
According to multiple NBA sources, had Kupchak agreed to include another first-round pick, Paul would have been a Laker. Instead, Kupchak sent Odom to the Dallas Mavericks, and Paul was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Should Kupchak receive partial credit or blame for almost acquiring Paul?
Part of the general manager title includes moving mountains to get seemingly impossible deals done—that didn't happen in this case.
More Bad: Letting Roster Age + Coaching Instability
One of Kupchak's biggest mistakes was a subtle one. In 2001, he declined the team's rookie-scale option on Devean George. Quickly, the Lakers roster started to age, and George became a regular contributor through the 2001-02 season.
The following summer, Kupchak needed to use the Lakers' mid-level exception ($4.5 million) to keep George instead of adding another veteran. That rule has since changed, but declining George's option hurt the Lakers' depth when they were in their championship window.
Outside of Phil Jackson's two stints as head coach, Los Angeles lacked coaching stability under Kupchak. Mike Brown lasted slightly more than one season.
Jackson was under the impression he would be returning for a third run, but Kupchak informed him the Lakers had hired Mike D'Antoni. After two seasons, the Lakers went to Byron Scott for another two seasons before Kupchak brought in Walton.
Few general managers last 17 years. Kupchak was successful for most of his run. It ended badly with Deng and Mozgov, but that shouldn't diminish the success Kupchak helped bring to Los Angeles.