Please excuse me for my second lambasting of the media in a seven-day period, but I just can't help myself; I don't know if it's the whole "run-up to the home stretch" thing, but idiots everywhere seem to be leaping out of the woodwork, questionable opinions in hand. This week's culprit is Mr. Steve Aschburner, currently a contributor to SI.com but formerly of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and I can only imagine that that "formerly" is largely due to a propensity to write crap like this. Now, I should preface this rant by saying that one of my least favorite sportswriting tendencies is the "last data point" syndrome: you know, the thing that leads people to proclaim things like, "If Brett Favre's not the greatest quarterback of all time, I can't think of anyone better," even you took about 30 seconds you could probably think of at least five quarterbacks who were, in fact, better.
Anyways, Aschburner's little thesis is that the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak deserves the NBA's Executive of the Year award over Boston's Danny Ainge. Now, as any who read this site during its pre-Garnett days can attest, I'm no Ainge-worshipper; in fact, my general disposition towards the whole Ainge-as-Celtics-redeemer rhetoric could be charitably described as skeptical. That said, last year the Celtics finished 24-58, good for the second-worst record in basketball; this year they're at 50-12, good for the very best record in basketball, and by a rather considerable margin at that. This phenomenal--indeed, historical--change in fortunes is unquestionably due to moves which Ainge enacted as the team's de facto head executive.
Now, last season the Los Angeles Lakers finished 42-40. A good performance, not great. This season, the Lakers sit at 44-19, good for tops in the Western Conference. They've already won two more games than they did all of last season. The Celtics have already won twenty-six more games than they did all of last season. You can see where I'm going with this.
So I admit to having a pre-formed bias against Aschburner's central thesis. But I'm a reasonable man, and saw no reason not to hear the man out, so I clicked on his link. What followed was one of the more vapid assaults on reason and competent writing that I've encountered since Peter May's last column, at the very least. In homage to the inimitable gents at Fire Joe Morgan, I'll save our readers some time and pull out some choice gems of banality:
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.
Not only is this a hopelessly cliched opening, it seems casually ignorant of the fact that the Lakers don't have a first-round draft pick this year, as Kupchak traded it to Memphis in the very transaction Aschburner's ostensibly here to celebrate.
Given his image makeover of the past 10 months, as measured by the Lakers' overhaul and 43-18 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.
Sweet Hilary Clinton reference, and super topical as well, since she recently wrapped up the Democratic nomination in the face of impossible doubts from the punditocracy. What, you didn't hear about that? I guess it got lost in the Spitzer headlines.
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.
One of the recurring idiocies of this article is that Aschburner consistently praises Mitch Kupchak for dealing with adversities brought about by none other than Mitch Kupchak. It's like he's under the impression that someone else has been aimlessly steering the SS Lakers for the past three or four seasons. His "point" about Bryant's trade demands is a perfect example of this: the reason he had this "loaded gun to his head" was because Mitch Kupchak himself, through a disastrous combination of poor personnel decisions and star-worship had created a situation in which he and his team were held hostage by his star player. Granted, said hostage situation appear to have temporarily subsided, but the fact that Kupchak is no longer being publicly humiliated by his star player seems like a bit of a wash to me.
Anyways, after a bit more in the way of maudlin platitudes, Aschburner launches into the "meat" of his argument for why Kupchak--not Ainge-- deserves Exec of the Year, conveniently rendered in bullet-point style. Some highlights:
• 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.
Ok, I admit that Bynum definitely looks as though he's going to be a very good, possibly excellent pro. But here's the thing: Bynum is clearly a long-haul investment (particularly after his rather significant injury), and this award is for Executive of the Year. I mean, does anyone out there actually think the Lakers would have been bad this year with Jason Kidd? I don't think that not trading Bynum necessarily should go in the plus column, unless you can definitively prove that holding onto Bynum enabled the Lakers to get Gasol, which seems a specious argument at best, and one which Aschburner never even attempts to develop, as that would require, like, looking things up.
• Kupchak stole, yes, stole Pau Gasol from Memphis, giving up Kwame Brown's expiring contract, last year's top draft pick, Javaris Crittenton, a retired Aaron McKie and a couple of first-round picks, one of which won't be much better than a Memphis second-rounder coming back to the Lakers. Beyond Gasol's dramatic impact on the Lakers' lineup combinations and results -- they are 13-3 with the 7-foot Spaniard in the starting lineup -- the trade created a ripple effect among conference contenders. Next thing anyone knew, Phoenix and Dallas were tinkering with pretty proven formulas, and New Orleans, Houston and San Antonio started tweaking, too.
Look, the Gasol trade was incredible, there's no doubt about that. I still haven't really gotten over it; it was probably the most absurdly lopsided NBA trade since Kupchak himself traded away Shaquille O'Neal, or when Kupchak traded Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins for Kwame Brown (I mean, let that last one sink in a bit). That said, there's a certain extent to which Gasol fell into Kupchak's lap due largely to the mind-numbing incompetence of Memphis' front office; rumors have persist that there were better offers on the table, particularly one from Chicago involving Joakim Noah and Andres Nocioni, that Chris Wallace wanted to take and Michael Heisley vetoed. It'd be completely cliched to make the old "if the Lakers win the title, they should send Heisley/Wallace a ring" joke here, but honestly, they probably should. And yes, I realize that one could make a similar argument around Ainge's heist of Garnett from McHale, but at least Ainge needed to make the Ray Allen trade to set that shit up.
• He removed from his roster a pouting, headstrong, me-first All-Star and replaced him with the NBA's best player, who is focused and working toward his best shot yet at a Most Valuable Player award. In other words, Kupchak maneuvered the Lakers from cranky Kobe to happy Kobe with one of those legendary, bullet-dodging moves-not-made.
Once again, this is giving Mitch Kupchak credit for alleviating a dysfunctional situation that he himself created. Once the Lakers acquiesced to Kobe's ego and traded Shaquille O'Neal they gave birth to a situation in which the star player (correctly) ascertained that he could hold the team hostage to suit his whims. Mark my words, Kobe Bryant is not done pulling this shit; not by a long shot.
• But wait, there was one more move: not trading Lamar Odom. Odom's status was shaky even after Gasol arrived, with some wondering if there was enough basketball for three offensive threats. Odom, though, is a matchup nightmare even when defenses aren't drawn away by the other two guys. His season averages (13.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 50.4 percent shooting) have bumped considerably since the Feb. 21 deadline passed (14.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 61.9 FG pct.).
This is by far the strangest "plus." First of all, I don't remember hearing any serious calls that the Lakers should trade Odom after getting Gasol, do you? This would be like me congratulating Danny Ainge on not trading James Posey: Aschburner's inventing a situation that never existed to credit Mitch Kupchak for not acting on said imaginary situation. Furthermore, besides the 10-point jump in Odom's FG%, I'm not really sure you can argue that his numbers have bumped "considerably" since the Gasol trade. I mean, they've gone up a little, but I don't think a 0.7 bounce in Lamar Odom's ppg over the past four weeks is really material in a Kupchak-for-Exec-of-the-Year argument.
Look, I realize I write for a Celtics blog, and that I open myself up to all sorts of charges of homerism in writing this column. That said, I do genuinely believe that Ainge deserves Executive of the Year: the Celtics' turnaround this season has been so remarkably unparalleled--and due purely to personnel moves--that I don't really see a convincing argument for anyone else. But really what riles me is the sort of shitty non-analysis like Aschburner's that lazily takes a slightly-controversial stand simply to try and convince us that its author is taking some stand against conventional wisdom. I mean, this article doesn't even work as a sort of counterfactual intellectual exercise, as it's completely egregious how little intellect clearly went into it. Anyways, that took a little longer than expected but I guess I feel better now.