EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Two years ago, Kobe Bryant was demanding to be traded. Much has changed for the Lakers in that short time to convert his doubts into a potential new dynasty.
Mitch Kupchak has managed that conversion. The Lakers' general manager introduced last week his latest find, Ron Artest, who elsewhere has been viewed as a problem but comes to Los Angeles as an upgrade. Defense and toughness were lacking in the champions last season, and those are the qualities that Artest can provide as well as any player in the league.
"Potentially we can be a better team," Kupchak said, with full understanding of the risks in trying to improve a roster that has reached the last two NBA Finals.
Kupchak's moves over the last two years reveal his desire to remain patient in addition to a willingness to move boldly when all else fails. He acknowledged last year that the Lakers might not have traded for Pau Gasol if not for the midseason injury to Andrew Bynum, because L.A. was committed to its young center. And last week he affirmed that his intent had been to re-sign small forward Trevor Ariza, who demanded (but ultimately failed to receive) more money than the Lakers were willing to pay.
"You have a team that's young and you win a championship and you have a chance to bring them back," said Kupchak, outlining his thoughts in the week before the free-agency window opened July 1. "Why wouldn't you try to do that?"
As Kupchak pointed out, he had no way of predicting that Artest would be on the market to sign for the mid-level exception starting at $5.9 million. Artest became available at that bargain price when the Rockets decided to let him walk following the recent news that Yao Ming will miss much or all of next season, plunging Houston away from contention and toward the lottery. With Artest available at a cheaper salary than Ariza was requesting, Kupchak shifted course. Many teams might not have felt comfortable changing plans so quickly to recruit a player with as troubled a past as Artest.
"You can't predict what July 1 will bring," Kupchak said. "Because we didn't know Yao was going to go down, we didn't know Houston was going to take a certain approach, we didn't know that the negotiations with Trevor would get out of control so quickly. If you're in a position to move quickly, and get a player who may make you just as good and maybe even better, then I think we got lucky."
Kupchak was able to adjust so quickly because Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss believes in spending money to win championships (and therefore make more money).
"This came up in the meeting on July 1," Kupchak said of his talks with the Buss family. "You end up talking in financial terms for an hour or two, and then at the end of the conversation [Buss] looks at you and he says, 'You know, Mitch, we're so damn competitive.' So it's like the [luxury tax] things you talked about for the last hour, they go out the door because he wants to win.
"The balance is that he's knowledgeable enough to be able to make a good decision when it involves basketball and business. And we do have to make hard decisions. A year ago we let Ronny Turiaf go to Golden State and four years ago we let Derek Fisher go to Golden State, and those are things you don't want to do. But by and large [Buss], wants to put the team -- with the resources he has -- in position to win."
Only two years ago, a rumor spread on the eve of the 2007 draft that Kupchak was in danger of losing his job with the Lakers. Though the franchise quickly put out word the gossip was false, the report had credence because it emerged within a month of Bryant's demand to be traded amid innuendo that Kupchak's predecessor, Jerry West, would have done a better job of building a contender. Kupchak, who took over for West in 2000, acknowledged that it has been difficult to pick up where his mentor left off.
"Going to North Carolina and watching the guys trying to follow in Dean Smith's footsteps, and then living in Los Angeles and watching what the UCLA coaches went through [in the decades after John Wooden's run], I had no illusions that following in Jerry's footsteps would be easy," said Kupchak, who maintains a close relationship with West. "But I always felt that ownership had confidence in me. Always. Even in the darkest -- not that we ever had darkest moments ... but we had moments of frustration about what the future may hold. Even in those complex moments, Dr. Buss and Jim Buss and ownership just made me feel that I was able to function normally. I never felt that I had to measure up to somebody.
"I had complete, unequivocal support on a decision to pursue Ron Artest. It was well thought-out. Dr. Buss has been through this -- the cycles of winning, rebuilding and rolling the dice, so to speak. He's a big poker player. You can't always assume that he's going to take the safe way out. He's not averse to risk. So we had a long, long discussion on July 1 and we were really together on this move."
Not only does Artest enable the Lakers to build on what they've established over the last two years, but his relatively low salary has provided Kupchak with the resources to re-sign Shannon Brown and recruit Lamar Odom. Though the Lakers have withdrawn offers to Odom worth a reported $36 million over four years or $30 million for three, L.A. remains the only team able to pay Odom more than the mid-level exception. One alternative for him would be to sign for the exception with Miami, which could offer five years at $33 million.
Should Odom return as sixth man to the Lakers, they'll enter training camp as strong favorites to defend their title and earn a fifth ring for Bryant, which would match the championship total of his idol Magic Johnson. It's hard to believe that Bryant was demanding to be traded just two years ago.
"I would prefer that it didn't happen and I would prefer that it never happens again," Kupchak said of that troubled summer. "But I understand that he was frustrated with the season, and I know that this was his way of putting pressure on the organization to do everything that it can to win. Yeah, I get that. Maybe there are other ways to put the pressure on it, but that's a decision he makes and that's fine, I understand. It's not the first time a player asked to be traded. Most times a player asks to be traded for other reasons. But his reason was, 'I want to win.' I can't hold that against him."
Despite those pressures, Kupchak has patiently built a young team of lasting influence around Bryant while also making a couple of finishing moves to surround him with Gasol, and now, Artest. It appears Jerry West taught him well.