Long before the free agency madness begins, the Lakers' front office puts together a list.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak and executive Jim Buss rank the players they covet once July 1 hits. It doesn't matter whether the Lakers can afford the player. It doesn't matter whether he is interested.
No free agency signing or trade happens without Kupchak first picking up the phone.
So even with Steve Nash proclaiming publicly he couldn't envision himself joining the Lakers, Kupchak recalled Buss providing a stern reminder.
"Jim Buss kept on saying, 'Mitch, don't forget to call. He's at the top of the list,' " Kupchak said. "I said, 'Jim, I'm not sure if this is even something we can begin to work out.' He said, 'You never know unless you try.' "
So that was that.
Kupchak called Nash's agent, Bill Duffy, and was told Nash actually was open about joining the Lakers, partly for his hope to win an NBA championship and partly because his twin 7-year-old daughters and 20-month-old son are based in nearby Phoenix. Eleven days later, the Lakers formally introduced Nash as their new starting point guard.
Buss' insistence that Kupchak pursue Nash was just a small part of the extraordinary circumstances it took to secure the elite point guard's three-year, $27-million deal. It required luck and smart strategic thinking that many critics, including yours truly, failed to recognize right away. And the Lakers took advantage of it.
There's no question the Lakers' shipping of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks last season hurt the team. The bench ranked last in the league in points (30.5), 20th in shooting percentage (21.8%) and 28th in efficiency (27.2). Pau Gasol became a facilitator, and the Lakers lost a valuable locker-room favorite. Still, the Lakers couldn't have secured Nash without that $8.9-million trade exception.
"People expected when we made the deal to move Lamar on that since we got this trade exception, now we have to use it," Kupchak said. "You have to use it in two weeks, a month or two months. That was a prevailing attitude out there: 'This is something you have to use, why aren't you using it?" To ownership's credit, being patient and waiting for the right opportunity, it bodes well with ownership. They always seem to do the right thing at the right time. There's no other way to say it."
Other moves unintentionally set up the Nash deal. When the Lakers traded Derek Fisher for Jordan Hill, it was seen as no more than a salary dump and a way to avoid potential awkwardness over Fisher's reduced role. But Duffy represents both Hill and Nash, and that connection provided further in-roads with Duffy.
The Lakers had hoped Ramon Sessions would exercise his $4.55-million player option so they could evaluate his long-term prospects after a complete season. His two-month stint and his playoff inexperience left the Lakers unsure of what to make of him as their starting point guard. But with Sessions opting out, the Lakers had no other choice but to pursue other point guards.
Then the Lakers took advantage of their favorable circumstances.
When Duffy indicated he wanted Nash to speak with Kobe Bryant, Kupchak said the front office went on the offensive and ensured Bryant talked to Nash in hopes to assuage any uncertainty. Kupchak acknowledged there was "some risk involved." Bryant had maintained hatred toward the Phoenix Suns for eliminating the Lakers in the first round of the 2006 and 2007 NBA playoffs. Numerous reports also indicated Bryant and Dwight Howard had a contentious phone conversation months ago when the Lakers' star outlined the teams' pecking order wouldn't mainly focus on the Magic center. This talk went differently.
"Kobe was great," said Nash, who talked with the Lakers star on July 2. "We had a conversation about how we could make this all work and he was incredibly excited, optimistic, positive and encouraging and he made no qualms about the fact that he thought we’d be a great fit together and could really help each other."
Two days later, the Lakers agreed to a deal with Nash. Once that became official Wednesday, Kupchak couldn't help but marvel on the path they took. He insists he's moved on since the NBA nixed the Chris Paul deal, even though he says fans every day talk to him about it. But more important, the Lakers' front office stayed patient with the hand they were dealt even when such moves sparked uncertainty and a short-term loss.
"I'm the guy that has to be on the phone to make the deal," Kupchak said. "But you can't make a deal unless you have the parameters of the deal and the support to make the deal."