It's time for Kupchak to take a chance
May 3, 2007
PHOENIX — They have one of the most exciting players in NBA history.
They have the best coach in NBA history.
They have the best owner in NBA history.
Yet on the dreary final night of another dreadful spring Wednesday, there was one thing the Lakers didn't have.
They did not have a chance to beat the Phoenix Suns.
They had zero, zilch, no chance whatsoever to beat a team that was far superior to them from the top of Steve Nash's messy head to the bottom of Shawn Marion's soaring shoes.
The Suns clinched their first-round playoff series with a 119-110 win and a four-games-to-one decision, beginning a Lakers summer with a serious question.
How does this happen?
How does an organization possessing arguably the three greatest forces in today's game combine for zero playoff series wins in the last three years?
Which leads us to the fourth wheel in the Lakers junker.
His name is Mitch Kupchak.
As the players cool after a 17-31 finish, the heat is on him.
After a season of futile acrobatics resulting in only two wins against playoff teams in the final two months, the next move is his.
Seven years after Kupchak has replaced the legend of the Logo, has he been suffocated by it?
It is time for him to make the sort of roster adjustments that show he is alive and breathing.
Kupchak is a truly nice man, accessible and accommodating, a great ambassador for the Lakers brand.
But the three consecutive Jerry-West built championships are history, and one of the longest honeymoons in this town's sports history is over.
Remember earlier in this series when Kobe Bryant said the Lakers need to become an elite team now?
Kupchak is responsible for the now
After all, Bryant's window is closing, Phil Jackson's patience is waning, and Jerry Buss isn't getting any younger.
"I'm aware of the perception that comes with following someone like Jerry West," Kupchak said before Wednesday's game. "Maybe you'll measure up to it, maybe you won't. But I can't get caught up in it."
The rest of the league, however, has caught up with the Lakers, both in record and imagination.
The Suns look like Showtime. The San Antonio Spurs play like the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers.
The Golden State Warriors are building like the Lakers used to build. The Denver Nuggets are bold like the Lakers used to be bold.
I have covered every Lakers playoff series since the beginning of the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, and this first-round series against the Suns was the first time that the Lakers truly didn't have a shot.
The scene was littered with the likes of bumbling ballhandlers, crumbling defense and a stumbling Kwame Brown.
But the fingerprints belong to Kupchak.
It was Kupchak who traded All-Star Caron Butler and ballhandler Chucky Atkins for Brown, whose one moment of brilliance in this series didn't compensate for his long moments of being a bonehead.
It was Kupchak who drafted Brian Cook ahead of Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard, then signed Cook to a $10.5-million extension, and for what?
It was Kupchak who gave decent money to Aaron McKie, Slava Medvedenko and Vlade Divac and great money to Vladimir Radmanovic.
And, yes, it is Kupchak who is still paying Brian Grant, and does anybody even remember him?
The trade of Shaquille O'Neal was not Kupchak's fault. But it has been his job to figure out how to build a contender out of the Kobe Bryant remains.
Three years later, the place is still a wreck.
With O'Neal, Bryant's team won three championships and 20 playoff series.
Since O'Neal, Bryant's team has won four playoff games.
"We're very aware of Kobe Bryant's age, we're aware of that window, and we're making every effort to make this the best team possible," Kupchak said.
Yes, Kupchak has made some good moves for the current team, including trading for Maurice Evans and drafting Ronny Turiaf.
But since replacing West, Kupchak has yet to make his mark with the sort of fearlessness that creates championships. No, acquiring Karl Malone and Gary Payton for that combustible 2003-2004 season does not constitute a mark.
Granted, it's hard being the Lakers' general manager. It may, in fact, be the hardest executive job in the NBA.
One eccentric player takes up about half of your salary cap. Some top free agents don't want to hang with that player. Most teams don't want to deal with you because you're the Lakers.
Kevin Garnett is coming here from the Minnesota Timberwolves? Do you think for one minute that Lakers-hating Kevin McHale would make that deal?
Kupchak is renown for working the phones until his ear is dripping, only to repeatedly here that his targets are unavailable for trades or on the verge of signing elsewhere.
"You're walking through the crowd and you hear somebody shout out a name for a trade and you want to stop and explain to them that it just couldn't possibly happen," Kupchak said.
Yet after a five-year drought during which the Lakers won just one playoff series, Jerry West faced those same obstacles in the spring of 1996.
He was desperate. He was daring. He wound up with two Hall of Fame players, a Hall of Fame coach, and three consecutive championships.
Mitch Kupchak has reached that same stage in his general manager career. He certainly should be desperate. But can he be daring?
The Lakers have given Kupchak riches almost beyond all sporting imagination.
It is up to him to now give them a chance.