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Despite the rocky ending to his tenure in Los Angeles, former General Manager Mitch Kupchak will long have his name etched among the great Lakers’ front office members all-time.
During his 31 seasons in the Lakers’ front office, Kupchak had many defining moments ranging from his time in helping assemble the Shaq/Kobe teams to his trade for Pau Gasol.
One moment, however, that also will forever be associated with Kupchak is the vetoed Chris Paul trade. Coming out of the lockout in 2011, the Lakers reached a deal to acquire Paul in a three-team trade before later having the deal vetoed by the league office.
The unprecedented decision was made all the more controversial with the added layer of the NBA running the New Orleans Hornets, Paul’s then-current team, as the team was looking for an owner.
In his first interview since his firing, Kupchak sat down with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on his podcast and talked at length about the nixed deal.
“Well that was a three-team deal. And all general managers agreed on the deal. In our business, a general manager doesn’t agree to a deal unless he has ownership’s approval. Everybody assured each other they had the necessary approval to make the deal. So we had our conference call between the three of us and we made the deal.
Dr. Buss was in the hospital and I remember going over to the hospital and visiting with him and Jim (Buss) and we were all a little melancholy because we’d have to lose Pau (Gasol) and Lamar (Odom), but the ability to get a young all-star point guard, and at that point Andrew Bynum was still a bit part of our future along with Kobe, we felt this would be the perfect transition into another eight or 10-year period where we can be very, very competitive.
Later on in the afternoon, I did get a call from one of the teams, the New Orleans team saying that, very apologetically, that the deal will not go through, which was shocking.”
Kupchak, who stated who always negotiated with New Orlean’s general manager Dell Demps during the talks, and the front office was forced to back track and recalibrate in the wake of the veto.
One of the few consequences of the trade was the reactions of both Gasol and Odom, who were included in the deal prior to the veto.
“When the deal for (Chris Paul) fell through, both Lamar and Pau came into the office and they both took it differently, but both of them were distraught and hurt. Understandably so. Tough decision that we had to make. That’s my job, that’s Jim’s job and that’s Dr. Buss’ job. He was still in control of the team and running the team. They were distraught, hurt and emotional.
Pau I think handled it a little bit better. Lamar was just hurt beyond words. He had found a home in Los Angeles. He had helped us win two championships. He was a great teammate, I think he has just won the Sixth Man of the Year award the year before and I’ve never seen a player — and I’ve unfortunately had to inform players for a long, long time that they’ve been traded. Sometimes in-person and other times by the phone and you kind of know how they’re going to react. But Lamar was beside himself and at that point, there really wasn’t much that we could do.
While Gasol eventually rebounded from the deal and rejoined the team, Odom did not bounce back in the same manner. Eventually the versatile forward would ask for a trade out of Los Angeles.
A day went by and I got a call from (Odom’s) representative saying that he doesn’t think it’s going to work, that Lamar wants to be traded. And nobody knows Lamar better than we did, and we didn’t feel that he’d be able to come back to this team. He had lost trust in us.
I get it, we’d had something special, but it is a business. So you try to balance both of those things. Sometimes you don’t always get it right… He wasn’t going to play in training camp and he didn’t want to be part of the team.
So at that point, the only option we had was to look at a move, and we felt that after three or four days the best thing to do was to make the best deal possible. Looking back on it I think we did the right thing. We did get a first round pick and unfortunately, Lamar was never able to play up to the same level he played with us.
I don’t know what the reasons are for that. Had we not mad the trade I think he would’ve had a great year for us. I really do. But the fact that we made the trade and if fell through, I think he had lost complete trust in our organization.”
The front office would be scrutinized for the deal, which at the time was regarded as a questionable deal that was also rushed given the lack of context of the situation behind closed doors.
Even despite the way the situation played out, Kupchak said he had no regrets on making the Odom deal.
“When the deal fell through, I really just moved on from it and I didn’t want our fans to attach themselves to a deal that was never going to happen, and my move was to move on and let it go and work on the next deal.
But having said that, there were only three people that know why we traded Lamar when we did… Dr. Buss, Jimmy Buss and myself. We’re the only three people that know why we did what we did.
So looking back on it, I’m 100 percent comfortable with the decision. Maybe there was a deal there that was going to happen a month later or two months later, but talking to the other people involved with the other teams, none of us knew of a pending deal that was going to take place.”
In the end, Paul would be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers days later while Odom’s career spiraled downwards in Dallas and eventually led to him being out of the league within two seasons.
The trade still lives on in infamy for Laker fans as one of the bigger “what ifs” not only for the Lakers but for the league as a whole.