- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mitch Kupchak emerged from his offices Thursday afternoon with noticeable stubble, tired eyes and a look that can be described as a mix of sadness and relief.
He's been walking an impossibly narrow line these past few months. He's been tasked not only with tearing down a Los Angeles Lakers team that had won a championship less than two years ago but also reupholstering it on the fly under the duress of a condensed season and the restrictive rules of the new collective bargaining agreement. There were few good options and countless uncomfortable ones that would injure many of the players he'd grown to appreciate and rely on over the past decade.
Kupchak is paid handsomely to make trades such as the gut-wrenching moves of co-captain Derek Fisher and the well-liked but seldom-used Luke Walton. He is said to be among the three highest-paid general managers in the NBA. Still, this was hard.
"Ten days ago at a home game, in the locker room, Derek walks up to me and grabs me by the shoulder, pulls me back into our equipment room, and he just says, 'Mitch, how are you doing? We've been spending a lot of time talking about our team; I just wanted to know how you're doing,'" Kupchak said.
"When you have a player that will take the time to do something like that, that's tough. But once again, as management, we have to try and separate that part. That's the hardest part of our job."
There are all sorts of "basketball reasons" to trade the 37-year-old Fisher to the Houston Rockets to make room for the younger, quicker Ramon Sessions. The Lakers no longer run the triangle offense, which Fisher's skills are best suited for. Fisher is older, a step slower and is shooting just 38 percent from the field this season.
But there are so many other reasons to have kept the man for whom the term "captain" falls short of capturing.
I have no idea what Kupchak did when he left the Lakers facility Thursday night. I assume he able to rest at some point, and not just because he'd been up since 5:10 a.m. when the flurry of calls woke him up five minutes before his scheduled alarm.
No, aside from the emotional toll, Kupchak had other reasons to rest. The trades that netted Sessions, Jordan Hill and Christian Eyenga from the Rockets and Cavaliers made the Lakers younger, more athletic, balanced and financially sound before the most punitive measures of the CBA begin in a few seasons.
To do so he traded two late-first-round draft picks, two players at the end of the Lakers bench and Fisher's locker room presence. The latter was the biggest sacrifice, especially for a team that has already dealt with a lot this season in adjusting to life after Phil Jackson and stomaching the fallout of the failed Chris Paul trade.
Winning has a way of deodorizing a room, and on paper, the Lakers have put themselves in a better position to win now and in the future with Sessions, Hill and the increased financial flexibility they earned with these two trades.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio are probably still the favorites in the Western Conference, but these moves, if the Lakers can get over the emotional loss, put them in better position to beat both teams in a seven-game playoff series.
"If we can get over the emotional toll, which I think we will, I think we have the potential to be a better team," Kupchak said.
"When you lose somebody like [Fisher], there's going to be a void or a vacuum that exists for X amount of days.
"Hopefully as each day passes it gets less and less. I would hope somebody steps up."
That somebody will be Bryant. It has to be. He will not be gentle, of course. He might not even address it straight on. His style is to play through things such as this, whether it be an injury or an off-the-court controversy.
It's no secret that Bryant hasn't been happy with a lot of things that have happened in the past 10 months. He wasn't consulted when the team hired Mike Brown, and the team ignored his public support for Brian Shaw to succeed Jackson.
Bryant chafed at Brown's criticism of his shot selection recently. When the coach apologized for the criticism after reviewing tape from the game in question, Bryant was less than conciliatory, saying wryly, "Everybody makes mistakes."
And now this. His best friend on the team, the guy who has always had his back, was shipped off at the trade deadline in a total blindside to both of them.
It has to hurt. Frankly, it should.
But Bryant is 33 years old and aware that his window to chase championships closes in a few seasons. He has no time to be angry or feel slighted. He might not even have the clout within the organization to do anything about it anyway.
No, the only option is to swallow hard and play through it.
These weren't easy decisions for Kupchak to make. He clearly didn't take them lightly. Fisher deserved a better exit. A player of his stature deserves a heads up, or at least not to first hear of a trade from a franchise he has won five NBA titles with from reporters. That part will not sit well with Fisher or players around the league.
In the end, Kupchak had to do what he felt was best for the franchise, live with the emotional consequences for both his conscience and his team, and remind himself that few in this business get to leave on the best terms.
"We've had moments like this before," Kupchak said. "There will be others."
8hEthan Sherwood Strauss