It’s late August, which means there’s nothing significant occurring in the NBA. So the time is ripe for an encore presentation to what I began delving into in my post about how Kupchak ruined Draftmas.
To recap: the Lakers haven’t had a first round draft pick in six years. Two of those picks were included in the Pau Gasol deal; I can’t criticize that deal after Pau helped bring two rings to LA, no matter how good Marc Gasol has become. But the other four picks were transferred in highly dubious transactions. Whether sold or traded in cap conscience deals, the common thread is mismanagement motivated by a misplaced concern about the bottom line. (The concern is misplaced not because teams shouldn’t be cost conscience, but because trading and/or selling first-round picks is a terribly ineffective way to reduce costs.) Most significantly, these deals collectively deprived the Lakers of the opportunity to acquire talented young players on cheap contracts. So, when Laker fans look around and wonder why the roster harbors no such players, this is the the starting point. The troubles, however, run much deeper.
DISCLAIMER: Throughout the article, I’ll assign blame to Mitch Kupchak or the LA front office. I consider them to be interchangeable. I’m all too well versed in the errs of Jim Buss; no one is more culpable for the Lakers’ demise. The truth is that for many of poor decisions over the past five to ten years, we have no way of knowing who was the driving force behind them. That said, Kupchak gets credit when things go well, and collects a sizable paycheck as the Lakers’ GM even when they don’t. Hence, I’ll lose little sleep over attributing to him decisions that might or might not have been influenced by ownership.
It was the Summer of 2009. Mitch Kupchak was on the hot-streak of his life — or so I think, considering I never saw him play basketball. He’d restored the Lakers to prominence after several dismal seasons that culminated in Kobe nearly leaving LA for good. Indeed, while many credit LA’s steadfast refusal to accept a pittance in return for Bryant, it was in fact Kobe’s realization that the roster Kupchak had built could contend that brought an end to that saga. Several solid draft picks and deft transactions accounted for that roster quality:
- In 2005 the Lakers drafted Andrew Bynum. It wasn’t until 2008 that he began to pay dividends. But when Drew developed that Fall, it was awe-inspiring. A handful of devastating knee injuries later, and his freakish athleticism (que up his driving dunk at the 20 sec. mark) has been largely forgotten. With that Bynum, LA was ready to take on a Suns team that had tortured them for the past two seasons. The same Kobe who famously sought to “ship his ass out” for J. Kidd turned on a dime to proclaim that Bynum made them legit championship contenders, and that was before the Gasol trade.
- The Lakers took Ronny Turiaf with the 37th pick in that same draft. Turiaf became a good mid-range shooter and a quality rim protector during the 2007-2008 season, which was good enough to earn him roughly $4 million a year from the Warriors a year later.
- Sasha Vujacic, selected in 2004 and with whom Kupchak had reportedly been enamored for some time, finally started making shots in real games. The Machine made 44% of his threes that year.
- Drafted 26th in the ’06 draft, Jordan Farmar looked like a steal, and a lock to be the Lakers’ point guard of the future.
- In what can be described as nothing less than a coup, Derek Fisher fell back into the Lakers laps after his concern for his daughter’s health brought an abrupt end to his days with the Utah Jazz.
Add in the streaky, if overpaid Radmnovic, who shot 40% from three that year, and the infamously stone handed, but underrated defender, Kwame Brown, and the Lakers had enough going that other pastures suddenly no longer appeared so green to Kobe. Of course that all came to a temporary halt when most ironically, Kobe inadvertently took out the same Bynum who’d gone from expendable to critical to Kobe’s path back to the winner’s circle.
Lightning struck. Kupchak pulled of what was then the biggest heist of the decade, sending Kwame, Crittenton, picks and fodder to the Grizzlies for Paul Gasol. This would be the apex of Kupchak’s run, but not its end. Brian Cook had long since proved useless, and while Mo Evans was a solid bench player, LA needed more length at the 3, and got it when they sent both to Orlando for Trevor Ariza. The following year, LA struck a similarly lopsided deal when they exchanged the overpaid Radmonovic for the lower dollar deals of Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown. Brown was a throw-in, but ended up rather easily being the best player in the deal. Even the minimum contract guys worked out well: DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell played solid minutes in relief of Bynum, Odom, and Gasol.
Kupchak’s streak had been years in the making. It’s rather fitting then that it wasn’t undone all at once. But make no mistake: in retrospect, when he went cold, he went really cold. Like Luke Walton cold. Ariza was more than LA could’ve hoped for. He might well have prevented LA from falling to Denver with his groundhog day game sealing steals in Game 1 and Game 3 of the 2009 Western Conference Finals. He continued with stellar defense and unexpectedly brilliant long distance shooting against Orlando. Then, Ariza became just another victim of “the disease of more” (credit for that term goes to Isaiah Thomas, via Bill Simmons). With both he and Lamar Odom hitting free agency that summer, LA had slotted Ariza for mid-level money. He wanted more. I can appreciate that. But when no other team would offer him more, his agent (David Bauman) demanded it still. That, I don’t get. Ariza was from LA and fit perfectly on a roster where his deficiencies were well concealed. His agent overplayed his hand, underestimating LA’s willingness to quickly execute Plan B in the form of signing Ron Artest. Bauman’s irrational intransigence struck a dual blow to Ariza’s career and the Lakers’ championship window.
Artest never fit. He couldn’t understand Phil’s triangle, and his somewhat diminished lateral agility dissipated at an unexpectedly rapid rate. Even in 2009, that five year, $35 million contract wasn’t looking so good. LA had proven that it could swallow bad deals like that, having doled out a similar contract to Walton that seemed to extend into infinity and beyond. But the Artest signing was the start of something more malignant: Kupchak systematically began to undervalue youth, speed, and athleticism throughout the roster.
Kobe plugged a lot of holes in Lakers’ rosters over the years: point guards who weren’t playmakers, shooting guards who couldn’t shoot, small forwards who couldn’t finish, and average to poor perimeter defenders alike. But most of all, Kobe made up for what was in hindsight a shocking lack of athletic prowess on most of his Lakers teams. From Fisher and Fox to Fisher and Walton, any attempt to find a plus athlete who played significant minutes anywhere at positions 1-3 on a Lakers roster from 2000 through 2008 is bound to come up more or less empty. (Caron Butler? Gone too soon. Smush Parker? Meh. Devean George? Yup, that’s our guy, which is quite telling). This went largely unnoticed, in the same way that it would now take a keen eye for any of team featuring Lebron to appear anything but dynamic. Then it happened. Kobe lost a step.
The malignancy metastasized as LA shipped Sasha and its 1st rounder (not so much Sasha, but the pick) for the decrepit Joe Smith, but again garnered little attention as LA limped to a second title in 2010. So too did its growth go unnoticed that summer, when LA decided that it was the shooting and steady play of Steve Blake in the backcourt that the roster craved, and not the speed and volatility of Jordan Farmar, who walked to New Jersey. The move played mostly to critical acclaim at the time. I didn’t get it: wasn’t Blake sort of a younger Fisher? If not an exact replica, he’s certainly a smart guard and a decent ball handler with a solid three point stroke who tries hard on defense but cannot (1) make a layup, (2) create his own shot, (3) create shots for others, and (4) stay with the league’s growing number of lightning quick guards. To make matter worse, Tony Allen, C.J. Watson, Randy Foye all signed for less than the $4 million/yr. Blake garnered, and Kyle Lowry (my choice) signed for roughly a salary of $6 million that the Lakers could have, but did not offer. Fortunately, Matt Barnes came aboard on the cheap. Unfortunately, Theo Ratliff did too.
By the time it hit them, it was too late. Jason Terry chirped that the Mavs would love to play LA — he expected that they couldn’t keep up with the quicker Mavs. Turns out he had good reason to harbor that sentiment. What could LA do after being swept by the Mavs? It didn’t have a first round pick (again), and had only the mini-midlevel to lure free agents in the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement. So Kupchak struck again — pulling off another astonishing feat in acquiring Chris Paul for Pau and Lamar.
After having been “Sterned,” Kupchak tried to recover. His means of doing so were perplexing: a shaken Lamar Odom was sent packing to rival Dallas for a protected 1st rounder. (Now, this looks like a stroke of genius after Odom’s game dove off a cliff.) The move was reactive and panicked. Odom to get Paul? Yeah, you got to do that one. But Odom was fresh off a 6th man of the year campaign, and was the straw the stirred the Lakers’ froncourt drink. Covered elsewhere, but still underappreciated, Bynum and Gasol never really did synch as a tandem. Odom’s relative speed and athleticims at the 4 allowed each of the other guys to thrive down low. Besides, Odom was an expiring contract. After excoriating LA for failing to maintain an adequate stead of draft picks, I’ll go ahead and criticize the one they did acquire: LA could’ve and should’ve gotten more for Odom.
The Lakers let fan favorite uber-athlete Shannon Brown walk — in favor of, you guessed it, more shooting and steady play, this time in the form of Jason Kapono. Kupchak also inexplicably lasered in on Josh McRoberts — whose athleticism couldn’t shine, well, because he couldn’t play at all.
I’m not sure that the Lakers’ front office completely appreciated the implications of Kobe slowing down until the summer of 2012. A year earlier, with Blake in for Farmar, Kapono in for Brown, Fisher a year older, Pau in for Odom, and Metta looking worse than ever following an abrupt end to the lockout, LA put out out an unwatchable product. Kobe had been a one man fast break for so many years, it had been forgotten that most teams need more than one guy who can beat the opposition down the floor. If it had been a subtle decline in Kobe’s game that allowed the problem to surface, to miss the problem would be to miss getting hit in the face with a two-by-four. Kobe couldn’t do everything anymore. As the Lakers only player who could create his own shot, Kobe was also the team’s best athlete, which usually left LA with exactly zero matchups in which it could claim athletic superiority at wany position. LA’s trade for Ramon Sessions that winter appeared to recognize the former, but not the latter deficiency. A testament to degree of speed deficiency, adding Sessions immediately boosted LA’s transition game, as the speedster generated about four to six easy baskets every game, until the playoffs.
Sessions solid regular season shooting proved to be an aberration. He regressed to the mean, and any positive contribution his speed added on offense was more than offset by a playoff induced pressure drought (aka “choking”) and a surprisingly poor defensive effort against both Denver and Oklahoma City. After that, most expected Sessions to exercise the $5 million option to stay with the Lakers. He didn’t. Sessions didn’t necessarily value himself above that $5 million annual salary, but as a second-round draft pick who’d yet to cash a great many years of paychecks at that grade, sought the security of a multi-year deal. Even in the summer of 2012, LA had its eyes on clearing the books by the summer of 2014, and balked at a long term contract. Would Sessions have returned on a two-year $11 million deal? We’ll never know for certain, but LA did not appear to be interested in such an arrangement. They lost for nothing the speedster and gifted finisher in the backcourt that they’d shipped out the stalwart Fisher and a first round pick to acquire.
Kupchak elected to get older and slower still in the backcourt. Nash had been languishing in Phoenix for years — well past the point of respectable loyalty. It was almost criminal for Sarver (the Suns owner) to continue to trot him out in a lineup featuring zero impact players. Finally succumbing to the right thing, Sarver allowed Nash to pick his next destination. I’m not sure how the phone-call went, but I’m guessing that Kupchak, like nearly all of the talking heads, could hardly believe his good fortune and readily surrendered three first rounders for Nash.
The cake was baked. There’s little need to spill more ink recounting the Dwight saga. I’ll condense his LA story. He came. He saw. He cowered. Lakers fans appropriately loathe his reluctance to even attempt to live up to his self-proclaimed Superman status. But most criticism of his roster analysis is off base.
I refuse to believe that his departure had much to do with Kobe. Dwight couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel on a roster possessing zero players with considerable upside. Few could. So he chose the bird in the hand (Harden) over two in the tree (LA’s two potential max slots in 2014.) For that, it’s difficult to blame him. Could LA have been better than Houston with Howard? Sure, if Nash had a renaissance, Kobe returned to form, LA upgraded its athleticism and D’Antoni returned to whatever village of idiots he came from. (Or is he the village idiot?) That’s a lot of ifs.
Credit Kupchak for satisfying one of those contingencies beyond any reasonable expectation: Young, Johnson, and Farmar represent a tremendous athletic upgrade in the backcourt and on the wings. Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that without Howard, it’s too little, too late.
And so Lakers fans cling to the promise of next summer. To those who hope that the cavalry will arrive before Kobe’s championship window slams shut, the pang of uncertainty outweighs the nearly mythical belief in his ability to overcome all obstacles. Simply put, the mismanagement of the Lakers –a systematic athletic starvation– culminated in losing out on the game’s best center, who took with him Kobe’s last best chance at sixth ring.