LOS ANGELES — I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak since he left the Washington Bullets after four seasons — and a 1978 NBA title — to signed a veteran free-agent deal with the Lakers following the 1980-81 season.
I’ve watched him return from one of the most devastating knee injuries ever — just 26 games into his first year in Los Angeles — to resume his Lakers career and help lead the team to the biggest victory in franchise history: Beating the Boston Celtics for the NBA championship in 1985. Previously, the Lakers had lost eight straight Finals to the Celtics.
I saw the tough but mild-mannered Kupchak become one of a handful of pro athletes to get kicked out of his final game ever — a six-game Western Conference Finals loss to Houston in 1986.
I also observed him make the amazingly successful transition from player to front office executive when Kupchak became assistant GM under Jerry West following his retirement.
We’ve spent hours and hours — along with Lakers PR man John Black — discussing music and the merits of Bruce Springsteen versus James Taylor. I’m a huge JT fan — those two would constantly gang up on me and the discussions would get — well — a little heated. I since have come to realize that there’s room for “The Boss” in my very eclectic music tastes.
When the Lakers were struggling following the early 2000’s Three-Peat, I gave Kupchak — somewhat jokingly — the nickname of “Asleep at the Switch Mitch” for his — in my opinion — lack of moves that would improve the team. Then Pau Gasol arrived in 2008 to join Kobe Bryant and the Lakers went to three consecutive Finals, winning the last two
Glad I was wrong about that one, too.
Kupchak has evolved into one of the finest professional sports executives in the world, and the Lakers really couldn’t be in better hands right now. But the circumstances he has to deal with in the NBA of 2013 and moving forward have changed the entire game.
Player movement is being restricted by the parameters of the new collective bargaining agreement, and keeping the future of your franchise under contract isn’t nearly as certain of a proposition as it had been just a year or two ago.
That brings us to Dwight Howard, the NBA’s perennial winner of the Mr. Indecisive Award. You know, the player who is always the last to make up his mind about anything. He did it with his on-again, off-again trade demands in Orlando, and he’s doing it with the Lakers as he decides where he will play the next four or five years of his career.
And it’s Kupchak who has the enormous burden of getting Howard to stay in L.A. squarely on his back.
“We’re optimistic he’ll be a Laker for a long time,” said Kupchak at a recent Lakers team function. “Because of the city we live in and the fans we have, we think this would be the best place for Dwight to play.”
However, the free-agent center has repeatedly said that it’s his right to take as much time as he wants to make a decision, and Kupchak agrees — even if he doesn’t like it.
“He’s right,” said Kupchak, who inexplicably has never won the NBA’s executive of the Year Award. “He has earned that right and he made it clear from the day we traded for him that he would take full advantage of the situation. It may not be what we want to hear, but that’s something as a player he has the right to take advantage of.”
But it’s not only the uncertainty of Howard’s decision-making process that has the Lakers worried. It’s the fact that the new CBA actually makes it palatable for a young superstar to leave tens of millions of dollars on the table to sign with the team he really wants to play with.
With reports circulating that D12 is leaning to bolting L.A., many have scoffed, saying that since the Lakers are the only team that can give him a fifth year — and nearly an extra $30 million — Howard would never leave that kind of money blowing in the wind.
In the past, that was a very accurate premise. No more, though.
At 26 years of age, Howard can take a four-year max deal from Houston or Dallas, and know for sure — barring a physical catastrophe — that he has at two more huge money contracts in his future. We might think it’s crazy to leave all that money behind — ask former NBAer Tom Gugliotta how that worked out for him — but for Howard it may seem like a sane business — and personal — decision.
Reportedly Howard wasn’t quite as enamored with being a Laker as he professed he was, and he especially disliked playing under coach Mike D’Antoni and with Kobe Bryant. He’s supposedly said this to confidants, and the Lakers must think there’s a little truth to it, because they’ve bought a number of large billboards throughout the city asking — begging? — Howard to re-sign.
“We absolutely understand there’s a possibility he could go elsewhere,” Kupchak said, “but we’re certainly going to do everything we can to keep him with the Lakers. He might (leave). That’s the reality of today’s game. We just have to wait and see what he does when he makes up his mind.”
I’ve seen Mitch Kupchak do a lot of meaningful things on and off the court for the Lakers over the past three decades—including getting Bryant to re-sign under very similar circumstances to Howard in 2004. It definitely has not been easy.
But it has been rewarding, because of his skills he’s the proud owner of 10 NBA championship rings — three as a player, seven as an executive. If he can get Howard to come back and the Laker break the reign of the Miami Heat, he’ll add another ring to his collection and another title to his resume.
And he’ll have pulled off one of the great sales jobs in professional basketball history.