Mitch Kupchak says Kobe Bryant was not hard to read.
Though his superstar guard seemed to be making a national spectacle of himself a year ago at this time - complaining that he wanted to be traded, and telling the world that his general manager had missed opportunities to give him the help he needed - the Laker GM never took it personally.
"All along, I felt that anything that happened with Kobe, from Day 1, was simply him expressing his desire to win now and not have to wait another three or four years," Kupchak says.
That help arrived in the form of Pau Gasol, the highly-skilled 7-foot Spaniard obtained from Memphis at the trading deadline. But even before that, Kupchak thought Kobe was happy. Or happier.
"He made a statement when Andrew Bynum went down," Kupchak notes. "He said, "With Andrew Bynum, we are a championship-caliber team.' That was comforting to me. He saw what we saw."
This was always an unfair fight. Great players will invariably triumph over general managers in the Court of Public Opinion. Being knocked publicly by Kobe could not have been pleasant for Kupchak.
Kupchak was a North Carolina great, an Olympian and a fine NBA player (two championship rings) whose career was ended prematurely by a knee injury, none of which was adequate preparation for the rather thankless task of following a legend. We all know how those stories usually turn out. Kupchak's predecessor as Laker general manager was Jerry West, who made the most successful switch from superstar player to superstar executive in the history of the NBA.
A thoughtful man, Kupchak began the post-career phase of his life by getting an MBA at UCLA. Then he settled into the Laker front office, learning how to construct and maintain a team from the man who was the industry gold standard.
The biggest lesson he got from West?
"You're asking me to reduce years into 30 seconds, but I would say that my primary observation is that he was always out there soliciting opinions," Kupchak explains. "He'd be out there scouting and soaking up all the opinions he could get. But at the end of the day he would follow his instincts. Sometime he would agree with people, and other times he would be 180 degrees apart. He was never afraid to go against the grain. I don't know if that's a 'lesson' or not."
Kupchak is a typical GM, deflecting credit and saying it's difficult for him to talk in terms of personal job satisfaction ("Perhaps some day in the summer."). He says he is happy for both Dr. Jerry Buss, the team owner since 1979, and Buss's son Jimmy, who carries the title of vice president of player personnel. But he's very willing to talk about his big acquisition. Gasol, as is so often the case in these matters, has turned out to be even better than Kupchak had imagined.
"He's a better all-around player than I knew," acknowledges Kupchak. "I knew statistically what he could do. But he really understands the game, and is a much better passer than I thought. With Pau and [Lamar] Odom, we now have a good interior passing game. Understanding the game as he does, he made an immediate transition with us. You'd have thought he'd been with us since training camp."
The LA numbers back up everything Kupchak says. Since acquiring Gasol they have gone a dazzling 37-8, regular season and playoffs combined.
And with Bynum out since December, what would the Lakers have done had Kupchak not made that deal with Memphis? "You say we had 35 wins at the time?" he inquires. "Maybe we'd have won half our games. Maybe not."
It's enough to earn Mitch Kupchak the Kobe Bryant Seal of Approval. We know that much.