Laker GM Mitch Kupchak has come in for his share of criticism in the past, but his work this off season has been little short of phenomenal. Without any cap space, without any first round draft choices, he has still manged to address the Lakers little weaknesses. In doing so , he has made them even stronger than before and a favorite to threepeat inspite of the challenge of the Miami Heat.Let’s analyze what he’s done so far this off season :
Cherry picking the Draft : Being one of the best teams in the league means you pick late in the round when all the elite players have already been snapped up. In picking Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter in the second round , Kupchak showed a keen eye for talent and a willingness to take risks. The Lakers prime needs were at guard and yet he chose two forwards : Devin Ebanks ( 6’9″, 210, West Virginia ) and Derrick Caracter ( 6’9″, 275 ,UTEP).At the time, I was mystified by the choices, particularly Caracter who I remembered as having attitude problems at Louisville before he transferred to UTEP. All the two rookies have done since then was to tear up the summer league while averaging over 15 ppg each . Both appear likely to make the Lakers roster .
In his best game in the Vegas league, Caracter played highly touted DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings to a standstill. Ebanks , a Trevor Ariza clone , is seen as a rangy , hardnosed defender though he needs to work on his jumper. Caracter too is a tenacious defender with nice length and a legit offensive game who could spell Bynum and Gasol and allow them to take a breather. And to think Ebanks was the 43rd pick , Caracter the 58th choice in the draft ! Excellent value and a boon to the cap- circumscribed Lakers since their rookie contracts, if they make the team, will be under half a million apiece.
A Replacement for Fisher: was perhaps theLaker’s prime need and signing Steve Blake was a coup that gave the Lakers exactly what they were looking for. An intelligent PG who would take care of the ball while playing good defense and providing a decent 3-point threat.I hope , in fact, that he will replace Derek Fisher soon . Even if Blake doesn’t send Fisher to the bench at least he’ll kep him fresher for the playoffs. Much as I love Fisher and what he has done for the Lakers all these years , he really is a liability at this point , particularly against younger , faster, quicker PG’s who seem to be in abundance in the Western Conference. Blake is a decided improvement on the departed Jordan Farmar who was too much a shoot-first PG, unable or unwilling to play within the triangle offense.
Signing Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff : I really didn’t think he’d be able to sign Matt Barnes who’d been offered twice as much money by Cleveland. Kudos to Barnes for accepting much less money for the chance of a championship ring in LA but let’s also give credit to Kupchak for his persistence and salesmanship. A pesky defender with a good 3-pt shot, Barnes will be valuable defending the likes of Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade, espescially in the playoffs , when Kobe needs a breather. I’d been disappointed when Raja Bell , an elite defender, chose to sign with Utah rather than the Lakers but the signing of the younger, fitter Barnes has more than made up for that.Theo Ratliff’s acquisition came out of the blue but is not the less welcome. His shotblocking and defense will be invaluable in giving the other Laker big men a rest and he is the sort of savvy veteran who plays within his role in the team. He’s also insurance in case Bynum’s knee problems recur.
What next ? : With the money constraints being what they are I don’t know if the Lakers will sign Shannon ( UPS) Brown but it really doesn’t matter. I’ll miss his explosive dunks and his drives to the basket but that’s about all. He’d be fun to have around but he’s not an essential part of the team. Frankly I’d been getting a little nervous seeing what Riley’s doing with the Heat but no more. The Laker team as presently constituted is good enough to compete with Miami should the Heat get to the finals.I don’t know what else Mitch Kupchak has up his sleeve but I know there’s something! Perhaps a mid-season jettisoning of Sasha Vujacich if The Machine is not firing on all cylinders? Sasha’s large expiring contract should make him attractive trade bait. Luke Walton to the ” Physically unable to Perform List ?Whatever is needed I’m sure will get done with a minimum of fuss.
The Lakers had always been known as an exciting , slick passing team that however was a little “soft”. Eastern Conference foes used to sneer at them for not being tough enough. All that has changed as the Lakers proved when they outgutted and out hustled the Celtics in a memorable Game 7 in the last year’s Finals. With Kupchak’s moves this off season the transformation is complete. There is not a single ” soft” player in the team and , with their hustle and fighting spirit, the Lakers should be able to counter anything the Celtics or the Heat are able to throw at them.
One of the things I like about Kupchak is his penchant for working quietly , behind the scenes . At times , the Laker faithful like myself , get a little impatient with the seeming lack of movement. Just when we are about to get frustrated, BOOM… Mitch delivers, exactly what we’d hoped for. It’s like Santa dropping off the X’mas gift we’d wanted.With his patience, his desire to stay away from the spotlight , his shrewd eye for talent and his hard work and dedication to the Laker organization, Mitch Kupchak is a theowback to his mentor, the incomparable Jerry West. I hope his efforts are recognized and he chosen the NBA Executive of the Year. It’s an honor that’s long overdue.