Mitch Kupchak always seems to be in the right place at the right time. At least that's the common misconception about the Los Angeles Lakers general manager who never gets credit for not only maintaining a championship team for three years but for rebuilding a new one three years later.
Kupchak is the quiet, unassuming player at the poker table -- never getting too aggressive or taking big risks yet always seems to end up with all the chips in the end.
When he traded for Pau Gasol two years ago, he was called a thief. When he drafted 17-year-old Andrew Bynum five years ago, he was called crazy and, after Bynum slowly developed into one of the best centers in the NBA, he was called lucky. When he replaced fan-favorite Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest last year, he was called foolish and, when Artest proved to be the hero in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, he was called fortunate.
Call him whatever you want but Kupchak, more often than not, has been right since taking over for Jerry West a decade ago.
While general managers around the NBA throw $120 million contracts at the likes of Joe Johnson, Kupchak quietly re-signed Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to contract extensions this past season. Both moves, by the way, were announced via nondescript afternoon press releases as opposed to a prime-time special.
Few front office executives know the NBA landscape as well as Kupchak, who played for the Washington Bullets and the Lakers from 1976-1986 and joined the Lakers' front office upon retirement in 1986. You'll never see Kupchak overpay for a player or bid against himself for a player. He knows the market too well. He knows how much a player can get and knows what it will take to get him.
Try to bluff Kupchak all you want but chances are he'll call you out and make you pay in the end.
Ariza and his agent, David Lee, tried to play hardball with Kupchak last year and ended up running to Houston to take the same five-year, $33.5 million deal the Lakers had been offering for weeks after the Lakers moved on and signed Artest.
He didn't budge when Lamar Odom refused to sign a contract extension last year, even as it appeared the Miami Heat would swoop in and sign him. He knew the Lakers had the best offer on the table and wasn't about to raise it -- eventually, Odom caved in. The same scenario played out this year with Derek Fisher and ended with a similar result.
Let's also not forget this is the guy who refused to trade Bryant three years ago when Bryant went on his now-infamous radio tour, not only demanding to be traded but calling Kupchak out for not trading Bynum for Jason Kidd (another non-deal that looks better and better with each passing year). Indeed, it's the deals Kupchak has refused to make as much as the moves he has made which makes him one of the league's best executives.
While the majority of the headlines this offseason will be devoted to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joining forces in Miami, Kupchak has quietly improved the Lakers and made them the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title in most circles outside of Las Vegas sports books.
It's hard to improve a team coming off back-to-back championships that has the core locked up for the foreseeable future, but Kupchak did just that. He first took care of the two biggest free agents the team had going into the off-season in Phil Jackson and Fisher. Jackson said he was leaning towards retirement before vacationing in Montana and Fisher flew to Miami after saying he was unhappy with the Lakers' initial offer.
Kupchak always said he was confident both would return and eventually got both to sign contract extensions. He allowed Jordan Farmar, the talented yet unhappy backup point guard, to leave via free agency and replaced him with Steve Blake, who was a thorn in the Lakers' side when he was the starting point guard in Portland and notched a triple-double against them as a Clipper. Blake, who has started about 300 more games than Farmar, is not only an upgrade off the bench but allows the Lakers to give Fisher more time to rest during the season as the two will likely split time in the backcourt before the playoffs.
He then signed veterans Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff to take the roster spots of DNP-regulars Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga. Barnes, who started 58 games for the Orlando Magic last year and averaged 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, turned down more lucrative deals from Cleveland and Toronto to come play for the Lakers. The UCLA product now joins a growing list of Kobe pests to become Kobe teammates, a list that includes Artest and nearly included Raja Bell, who eventually signed with the Utah Jazz.
Ratliff, who started 26 games for the Charlotte Bobcats in 2009-10 and averaged 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, gives the Lakers a veteran backup on the front court who will be more focused on his role than his wardrobe, as Mbenga tended to be. A two-time second team all-defensive player and an All-Star in 2001, the 37-year-old Ratliff also gives the Lakers another veteran leader in the locker room.
Kupchak, who said he is "optimistic" he can round out the roster by re-signing Shannon Brown in the next week or two, also upgraded the Lakers' bench in the draft despite not having a first-round pick. He nabbed West Virginia's Devin Ebanks, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound carbon copy of Trevor Ariza who was projected to be a first-rounder, with the 43rd selection, and then stole Derrick Caracter, the 6-foot-9, 275 pound forward out from the University of Texas El Paso, with the 58th pick. Caracter averaged 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in the Las Vegas summer league while Ebanks put up 15.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Both players are expected to make the team and would be the first rookie tandem to be on the Lakers' opening day roster in seven years.
Again, no one will be talking about Kupchak's moves during an offseason dominated by the three kings in Miami but he can now sit back and smile at the full house he has put together while everyone around him goes all in.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi.