Executive producer (cont.)
Posted: Friday March 7, 2008 4:04PM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 1:00PM
He traded for Trevor Ariza, a big-wingspan defender and role player, three weeks into the season. Ariza was contributing before breaking his right foot Jan. 20, but even a return by the postseason would boost L.A.'s already strong cast of supporting players (Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic).
Kupchak stole, yes, stole Pau Gasol from Memphis, giving up Kwame Brown's expiring contract, last year's top draft pick, Javaris Crittenton, a retired Aaron McKie and a couple of first-round picks, one of which won't be much better than a Memphis second-rounder coming back to the Lakers. Beyond Gasol's dramatic impact on the Lakers' lineup combinations and results -- they are 14-3 with the 7-foot Spaniard in the starting lineup -- the trade created a ripple effect among conference contenders. Next thing anyone knew, Phoenix and Dallas were tinkering with pretty proven formulas, and New Orleans, Houston and San Antonio started tweaking, too.
He removed from his roster a pouting, headstrong, me-first All-Star and replaced him with the NBA's best player, who is focused and working toward his best shot yet at a Most Valuable Player award. In other words, Kupchak maneuvered the Lakers from cranky Kobe to happy Kobe with one of those legendary, bullet-dodging moves-not-made.
"From Game 1, OK, he has embraced this team,'' Kupchak said. "He was able somehow to put the distractions of the offseason'' -- that would be distractions Bryant himself created -- "locked up and away. And he's been nothing but a good teammate, and a player who is committed from Day One of the regular season.''
Better still, though, after Groundhog's Eve became Christmas Day. "When we made the Gasol trade,'' Kupchak said, "I really felt that the group of players -- and nobody more so than Kobe -- really embraced the remainder of the season and the potential.''
But wait, there was one more move: not trading Lamar Odom. Odom's status was shaky even after Gasol arrived, with some wondering if there was enough basketball for three offensive threats. Odom, though, is a matchup nightmare even when defenses aren't drawn away by the other two guys. His season averages (13.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 51 percent shooting) have bumped considerably since the Feb. 21 deadline passed (14.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 63.4 FG pct.).
"My understanding is, for the first time this year, he feels really healthy,'' Kupchak said. "But I think deep down inside, [after] all the trade rumors, he felt, 'This is the team.' He wasn't going to be traded. And I think that might have something to do with it.''
Not that Odom, Bryant, Gasol, coach Phil Jackson or the rest have done anything. Not by the boss' standards.
"We haven't accomplished anything yet,'' Kupchak said. "Two-thirds of the way through the season, we have a good record. Halfway through last season, we had a good record. So we are a little further along. But we haven't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. In fact, we haven't made the playoffs yet. In this conference, you could lose four or five in a row and be out of the playoffs. So I do have to keep it in perspective.''
And here you probably thought LeBron James was the league's reigning nail-biter.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins,'' can be ordered here.
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