Mitch Kupchak, Lakers Find Old 1996 Glory in Summer of 2012

Let’s look at the three major acquisitions from 1996.

Shaqulle O’Neal (free agent)
Kobe Bryant (trade)
Derek Fisher (draft)

Now I know some of you are going to kill me for throwing Fisher in there, but he was a 5-time champion in Los Angeles and played an integral role in four of those five titles. Also I’m the one writing so I get to do what I want. Bite me.

Now, how about the major moves made in 2012.

-Dwight Howard (trade)
-Steve Nash (free agent – technically a sign-and-trade, I know, but he was a FA)

Notice I chose not to include any Laker draft picks from this season. They did pick up Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette) and Robert Sacre (Gonzaga)* in the draft, but it’s far too early to tell if they will have an impact on this team – especially long-term.

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*For the record the same could absolutely have been said about Fisher in ’96. Nobody expected anything out of the undersized guard from Arkansas-Little Rock to turn into the most successful Los Angeles point guard since Magic Johnson.

At first glance it’s hard to say the 2012 haul is a better one than the ’96 version. In that one summer (’96) the Lakers set themselves up for five future championships. For a little perspective, there are only three franchises in NBA history with more than five titles, one of which is (obviously) the Lakers. So in one off-season the Lakers put together a more successful decade than 98 percent of the league’s total existence.

It may be unfair to expect that kind of success from Howard, Nash and the latest batch of new Lakers, for a variety of reasons. The main one is that Nash is 38 years-old and dealing with chronic back issues. That’s not exactly the same thing as a spry, 17-year-old Kobe Bryant who still couldn’t even buy a lottery ticket when he signed his first contract.

Another reason is Howard and what exactly the team can expect from him. First of all he’s not guaranteed to be a Laker beyond this next season. While it’s widely expected that he’ll sign a long-term extension with Los Angeles, it’s not guaranteed. If he decides life in Southern California doesn’t suit him he has the option to pack his bags and head elsewhere next summer. Not many people are expecting him to do this, mainly because it would require leaving $25 million on the table, but it’s possible.

But let’s say Howard does sign an extension with the Lakers and spends the next 5-8 years playing in Los Angeles. To live up to the precedent set by O’Neal (remember, we’re comparing just these two off-seasons, so we’re ignoring Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain’s legacy in L.A. for this argument), Howard needs to win at least three championships.

’96 Success Brings Huge Expectations for Howard, Nash

Three championships. In six years? That’s an order that’s taller than Howard himself, especially when you consider the competition around the league and the aging state of the Lakers roster.

There’s no question that Shaq had more to work with during his prime years in Los Angeles than Howard will. Bryant and Nash are still All-Star caliber players, but their productivity numbers aren’t going to increase anytime soon. Bryant’s stated multiple times that he only has 2-3 more seasons left in his legs, and Nash’s contract is up in three years, at which point he is expected to retire.

So theoretically, Howard could be left with a roster that doesn’t look much more impressive than the one he had in Orlando just a few years ago. But that’s assuming the front office doesn’t do anything else to prepare for the future, which they will undoubtedly do.

But let’s get back on track. So in order for this particular off-season, which, don’t get me wrong, has been rather legendary, to trump the famed summer of ’96, Howard needs to deliver multiple championships in a short amount of time.

I don’t see it.

This doesn’t mean I’m taking anything away from Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and the rest of the Lakers’ front office, mind you. What they’ve managed to accomplish in the last eight months is truly staggering if you step back and examine it closely.

Last December the team had a deal in place that was going to bring Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard in the league, to the Lakers. He was going to be the piece that carried them beyond Kobe and into the future.

We all know how that went.

Most teams would have folded. They could have thrown a fit, taken their ball and gone home. For the poker players out there, they would have gone on tilt. The emotion of the situation in which they got hosed, which regardless of your feelings towards the Lakers you should probably realize that they did indeed get hosed, could have easily caused an enormous problem. Instead, they pulled their pants back up and went to work.

Does Mitch Kupchak Deserve West-like Praise?

After acquiring Paul and seeing him taken away just as quickly, the Lakers played through a fairly disappointing season and found themselves once again on the prowl. Kupchak & Co. went out and agreed to terms with Steve Nash, a 2-time league MVP and a sure-fire Hall of Fame point guard.

That right there would have been enough to earn Kupchak free drinks at any bar in Los Angeles. But a month after acquiring Nash, Kupchak brought in the biggest fish of them all in Howard.

In eight months Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers traded for Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, while the rest of the league tried to figure out what the hell happened.

Not bad, Mitch.

While it’s far too soon to tell which summer will ultimately be the more prosperous for the Lakers, the fact that it’s even a debate is impressive enough. The GM back in ’96, Jerry West, is widely known as one of the best team architects in the history of the NBA. Five years ago it would be considered blasphemy to put any other man in the same sentence as West, at least when referring to general managers.

But Kupchak has proven time and time again that he deserves to be up there with West. And, as blasphemous as it may sound, when it’s all said and done he may have even surpassed the legendary Logo in GM accolades.

So in the end it’s a movie we’ve seen before. The names of the characters are different and the script is slightly modified, but overall that overwhelming sense of Déjà vu is an appropriate one. It seems that we’re once again re-living old memories. For those in Orlando it’s the emergence of a long-dormant nightmare.

But in Los Angeles? Well, let’s just say things are a little more optimistic.

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