Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
The moment he hung up the phone Thursday, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak stared across the room at Coach Mike Brown.
Kupchak had just ended a conference call with officials of the Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, the final chapter of what Kupchak described as a "frustrating" process in pursuing Dwight Howard.
After all, the Magic spent over a year weighing every trade proposal imaginable, while Howard gave mixed signals on his intentions. Once that phone conversation ended, though, Howard became a Laker. Kupchak recalled the conversation with Brown:
"We have a deal," Kupchak said.
"Who are we getting?" Brown asked.
"Dwight Howard," Kupchak answered.
"Who's going out?" Brown asked.
"Andrew," Kupchak answered, referring to center Andrew Bynum, who will now play with the 76ers.
"That's all?" Brown asked.
"That's all," said Kupchak, though the trade also involved sending reserve forwards Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga and protected first-round and second-round picks to Orlando for forward Earl Clark and guard Chris Duhon.
Brown still struggled processing the news.
"No Pau?" Brown asked, in reference to Lakers forward Pau Gasol. After all, reports first indicated these talks would also include Gasol going to the Magic, and he had been the subject of endless trade speculation ever since the NBA nixed the Chris Paul deal, which would've sent Gasol to the Houston Rockets.
"No Pau," Kupchak said.
Kupchak then recalled Brown leaping out of his chair and hugging him, an incident that prompted plenty of reporters to chuckle as he told the story.
The incident highlighted two realities: Plenty of Lakers fans would also like to hug Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss for landing what could be the Lakers' next franchise player. It also reveals the understandable skepticism that even Lakers supporters had on whether team officials could pull off such a deal without giving up significant assets. Fulfilling such a goal under a more restrictive collective bargaining agreement seemed doubtful.
But the Lakers pulled it off.
They acquired an elite point guard in Steve Nash. They added secondary scoring in Antawn Jamison. The Lakers re-signed surprise forward Jordan Hill. On the same night they agreed to the Howard trade, the Lakers reached agreement with reserve shooting guard Jodie Meeks on a two-year, $3-million deal. Meanwhile, the Lakers still boast Kobe Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace.
The Lakers are accustomed to making such big moves. As Kupchak reminded reporters: Ever since Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, "it always seems like they've figured out a way to make things happen." The Lakers have 16 NBA championships and 24 Hall of Famers as proof. But this feels different.
The Lakers publicly indicated they needed to cut salary to adjust to the new labor deal, which forces more revenue sharing and more luxury-tax penalties. It seemed they pursued that path when they dumped the salaries of Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, two crucial role players who could've helped the Lakers finish beyond the Western Conference semifinals.
Kupchak maintained that all fit into the larger picture. The Fisher trade landed the Lakers the sudden surprise in Hill. The Odom deal gave them a $8.9-million trade exception they used as part of Nash's three-year, $27-million deal. One could argue that the Lakers wisely just reversed course and were ignoring luxury-tax implications, but it doesn't matter. Their willingness to have a $99-million payroll, including Howard's $19.5-million salary, shows they still put no price tag on NBA championships.
"Dr. Buss is a very competitive owner, and his family is also very competitive," Kupchak said. "And when it comes down to making a decision about a couple dollars or a million dollars or $10 million or putting another banner up? He can’t help himself. He chooses to go for the banner."