The frustration seemed understandable for Mitch Kupchak, who had spent a combined 30 years as a Lakers executive, 17 of those as a general manager and six others wearing the Lakers uniform. But Lakers president Jeanie Buss decided on Tuesday to name Magic Johnson the president of basketball operations while demoting her brother Jim Buss and firing Kupchak. Although the Lakers have seen promise in first-year head coach Luke Walton and their young players, Jeanie Buss also became frustrated with the team’s 19-39 record and missed playoff appearances in the previous three years.
“I am most disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to continue to work with Luke and watch this young and talented team grow and eventually win in the Laker tradition,” Kupchak said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, Kupchak still offered his “best wishes to Earvin Johnson and the Laker organization going forward.”
Kupchak first joined the Lakers’ front office in 1986 under former general manager Jerry West before taking the top position in 2000. During that time, the Lakers were in the middle of winning three consecutive NBA titles led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. After shielding persistent criticism from Bryant that prompted a trade demand in 2007, Kupchak acquired Pau Gaosl from Memphis in 2008 in a move that sparked three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back championships (2010).
Since then, the Lakers became mired amid unproven rosters and persistent coaching turnover in Mike Brown (2011-12), Mike D’Antoni (2012-14) and Byron Scott (2014-16). Though the Lakers received credit for it at the time, Steve Nash lasted only two seasons (2012-14) amid constant back problems and Dwight Howard stayed for only one year amid frustration with the team’s direction. The Lakers then struck out on acquiring or retaining marquee free agents, in 2014 (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Gasol), 2015 (LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe) and 2016 (Kevin Durant). The Lakers also spent $136 million on veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov last summer, moves that have not yielded much initially in return.
Johnson and Kupchak were known to have a good relationship. Johnson had famously implored the late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss to acquire Kupchak from the former Washington Bullets for the 1981-82 season. But Jeanie Buss still viewed Kupchak as partly responsible for the Lakers’ recent struggles.
“I would like to thank the Buss family for 36 incredible years,” Kupchak said in the statement. “In particular, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Buss, who brought me here as a player in 1981. I also want to thank every Laker player, coach and staff member with whom I have worked and who supported me through the good times and the very few not so good times.”