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Executive producer

Lakers GM's smooth moves could be award-winning

Posted: Friday March 7, 2008 4:04PM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 1:00PM
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Executive of the Year race
Here is my ranking of the leading candidates for NBA Executive of the Year (the award is voted on by front-office officials):

1. Mitch Kupchak, Lakers: Found a way to keep Kobe Bryant and make him happy, in what looked not long ago like an either-or situation.

2. Danny Ainge, Celtics: The two biggies (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) get all the attention, but the moves that brought some role players were critical too.

3. Danny Ferry, Cavaliers: LeBron James had a look in his eyes after Jason Kidd was dealt to the Mavs rather than the Cavs that could have given Cleveland fans nightmares, had it lasted. Ferry's roundup of Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West brightened LBJ's face and the team's fortunes.

4. Kevin O'Connor, Jazz: Like the franchise itself, O'Connor flies below the radar. Yet acquiring Kyle Korver was a classic surgical move.

5. Joe Dumars, Pistons: For spotting youngsters onto a roster that seems, to casual observers, etched in stone, no one has been better. It's hard to even lob a Darko Milicic comment Detroit's way these days.

Worth noting: If Phoenix gets to the Finals, Steve Kerr moves up the list, though it would be too late for the actual Exec voting. ... Kevin Pritchard would lose votes if the Trail Blazers miss the playoffs, but they don't figure to miss much in coming years. Besides, unloading Zach Randolph would win a trophy all by itself some years.

-- Steve Aschburner

As Mitch Kupchak makes the basketball rounds this spring, from Pauley Pavilion to Staples Center to any of the other venues where his current (the Lakers) or future players (potential draft picks) are active, you won't see a satisfied smile plastered across his face. No smug look, wry expression or "told-you-so'' smirk, either.

Just when the Lakers' general manager ought to be going all Cheshire cat on us, with nothing so visible as his ear-to-ear grin, he sounds as edgy and fretful as a diehard SuperSonics fan, as if his world might crumble at any moment.

"I'm not sure NBA general managers enjoy the season,'' Kupchak said by phone Thursday, a couple of hours before scouting the Stanford-UCLA clash in Westwood. "I certainly don't. Upon the conclusion of the season, you look back on it and what you've done as a team. Then, if you exceed what you thought your team could do, there's a degree of satisfaction at that point in time. But it's way too early.

"Last week, Houston just went through a terrible situation with Yao Ming going down. So you can never sit back and say, 'We're on our way.' ''

Where's the fun in that? Given his image makeover of the past 10 months, as measured by the Lakers' overhaul and 44-19 record, Kupchak has a right to drop more nyah-nyah's on the league and within his own locker room -- in the vicinity of No. 24's dressing stall -- than Hilary Clinton in a roomful of pundits. He's back. Back from the public lambastings he got from Kobe Bryant last May on the radio and in a grainy, parking-lot video. Back from all the days of whine and ridicule in fan forums, message boards and newspapers.

Then you remember how Kupchak learned to do his job, and from whom. Jerry West, the former Lakers and Grizzlies personnel boss, diligently and brilliantly made his teams fun for just about everyone but himself. The Hall of Famer never let people see him sweat, see him gloat or see him relax and enjoy the ride.

"That's how I look at it. Jerry really couldn't enjoy a whole lot. He was comfortable when he was uncomfortable,'' said Kupchak, in his 21st season with the franchise overall and his eighth as its head of basketball operations. "You really can't [relax]. We're busy, we're getting prepared for the draft. The NCAA tournaments. You can't stop and say, 'We're where we want to be.' ''

Here's where Kupchak is, whether he likes it or not: challenging Boston's Danny Ainge as the favorite for NBA Executive of the Year (see chart above). If the Celtics' boss deservedly cleared space on his bookcase for the award through the season's first half -- a 34-7 seal of approval stamped on his offseason acquisitions of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and others -- Kupchak has pulled even with about a quarter of the schedule left. In a tougher conference, with Bryant's trade demands as a loaded gun to his head, he has matched and maybe even surpassed Ainge's impressive work.

The Lakers are good to go for a deep playoff run this spring and they're set up for seasons to come with their deep, talented and young roster. By the time Boston's facelift, in a year or two, starts looking Joan Rivers-ian, Kupchak's crew figures to still be pert and lively.

Here is a review of Kupchak's recent work:

• He hung onto Andrew Bynum, which would have been easy based solely on the 20-year-old's size and potential but got harder after Bryant's rant about the kid (the untouchable in a possible Jason Kidd deal last year) was made public. Whether Bryant's challenge helped or not, the 7-footer was averaging 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 28.8 minutes when he went down with his left knee injury on Jan. 13.

• He welcomed back Derek Fisher, the veteran guard and relative "old head'' who never should have been allowed to leave as a 2004 free agent anyway.

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