It must have been some kind of scene in Mitch Kupchak’s office last December.
After working the phones relentlessly and putting in 17-hour days for close to two weeks in order to land Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager received one more phone call from the league office. The trade was vetoed.
The normally reserved Kupchak began throwing objects from his desk against the wall, causing Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss to forget about his own anger over the aborted deal so he could duck for safety.
That was then. This is now.
The great ones don’t get mad -- they get even.
If it wasn’t already apparent, then the Dwight Howard deal should solidify Kupchak’s reputation as a great NBA executive.
Soon after the Paul debacle, Kupchak’s anger subsided and his focus returned to figuring a way to get the Lakers back to championship contender status.
And the deals that Kupchak has been able to orchestrate since losing out on Paul last December have the Lakers in an even better position to win it all than if everything had gone according to plan.
Would you rather have Paul, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant as your Big Three -- as would have been the case had the Lakers traded Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to get the coveted point guard -- or Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash as your Big Four, as the team stands now?
The Lakers have responded from their second straight second-round exit by adding a three-time defensive player of the year in Howard, a two-time MVP in Nash, a two-time All-Star in Antawn Jamison (for a bargain-basement veteran’s minimum price) and by re-signing the promising 25 year-old Jordan Hill for a reasonable deal when Hill had a host of competing free-agent suitors.
Some might say Kupchak has an easy job running the Lakers, what with owner Dr. Jerry Buss’ deep pockets routinely pushing the payroll north of $90 million, plus the franchise’s location (Hollywood glamor meets beach living) and history (16 championships) keeping L.A. a perennially attractive destination.
But Kupchak’s challenge isn’t in building a contender from time to time. It's in maintaining that status from year to year. In the NBA there is no such thing as stagnant. Either you are getting better as a team from season to season, or you’re getting worse -- even if it seems as if you’re staying the same -- just by virtue of all the other teams around you that are getting better.
Kupchak’s challenge has become increasingly difficult in recent years as the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement severely limits his ability to revamp the Lakers each summer. Bryant’s backloaded sweetheart contract that will pay him $58.3 million over the next two seasons was a major commitment at the time he signed it. Now, a GM would be committed for allowing a contract like that on the books under the new CBA.
Despite the bevy of bucks Bryant is owed or the restrictions the new CBA holds over his head in terms of how munch Kupchak and the Lakers are able to offer free agents as a tax-paying team, he somehow made it work. He put together a roster that gives L.A. a legitimate chance to win it all now (Vegas has them at 3-to-1 odds, behind only Miami at 5-to-2), but also gives them a face of the franchise moving forward in Howard.
“Wow, what a summer Jimmy and Mitch have had so far,” Bryant wrote on his Facebook fan page Friday. “Unreal!”
Kupchak’s done a great job of making the unreal become real. From Kwame Brown and scraps for Gasol, to a trade exception and future (most likely late) first-round picks for Nash, to the Houdini-like acquisition of Howard, it’s hard not to be a believer.
There’s a memory of Kupchak that sticks with me from after the Lakers beat Howard’s Magic in the 2009 Finals. Standing against the back wall in the cramped visitors locker room as champagne and beer sprayed out in front of him, Kupchak’s hands were devoid of a celebratory beverage. Rather, his mind was already churning, looking across the room at the then free-agents-to-be (Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza) and concentrating on what he could do to get the Lakers in position to repeat (which they did against Boston the following year, of course).
It reminded me of Santa Claus turning down milk and cookies on Dec. 26 because he was already planning a way to get all of the toys in order in time for next Christmas.
For most GMs in his position, it would have been some kind of scene in Kupchak’s office Friday, when the Howard trade became official.
Knowing Mitch, he just might have taken enough time to break out in a smile before he picked up the phone to fill out the rest of the Lakers’ roster.
After all, they still needed a backup shooting guard.
And you guessed it. That was then. This is now.